Oriental poppies

Their blooms bring standout beauty to a sunny summer border.

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Nothing quite compares to the blowsy beauty of the oriental poppy. These relatively quick-growing perennials with just-look-at-me flowers are the quintessential early summer big statement performer for a sunny border.

The stout stems and highly dissected leaves are clothed in bristly white hairs, growing from 18in to 4ft in height. The buds open like a coiled parachute, the crinkled petals opening out into large flat saucers in shades of red, pink, salmon to dark plum and white. The base of the petals may be blotched in another colour or black and in a few the petal rim is picoted, or jagged and/or ruffled to dramatic effect. They look good with early roses and silvery foliage and ideal if starting a new garden and you want something to make a statement.

After they have finished, cut the stems down to enable the rootstock to build up energy for next year’s display and dry the young seed pods for use in flower arrangements. Plants then go dormant over summer, the tuft of leaves reappearing again in late summer and autumn. Coming from the hot, dry Caucasus, Turkey and northern Iran gives a clue as to why they do this. So you will need perennials such as grasses and rudbeckia that perform later in the year to help fill the gap.

Oriental poppies can live for a number of years, ideally in full sun and well-drained soil. They hate constant wet, particularly in winter and if the soil is too rich or over-fertile they tend to overgrow and collapse when the top-heavy flowers open. Humidity also encourages mildew.  It’s best to treat them a little on the mean side and once established leave them alone. That said if the weather turns wet provide support to help keep them upright.

Although easily grown from seed, named varieties need to be propagated vegetatively from division or root cuttings in late summer and early autumn to keep them true to form.

Alliums

Ornamental onions are a delight in the garden in high summer

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You know summer is on the horizon when dramatic displays of ornamental onions or alliums approach their peak, stretching their glorious globes and bold bobbles above leafy perennials still preparing for glory. But after the main early June show why not develop the cavalcade of blossom by using other allium species and varieties that will propel your displays into high summer. While the time for planting dry bulbs is in autumn do look out for potted plants in nurseries, garden centres and horticultural shows that you can slip into plantings to try them out. Alliums are so useful, as their long-lasting flower heads are supported on strong stems that enable them to poke above or mingle with other perennials, which can be used to mask or disguise their foliage which has no visual quality or which withers before they flower. For serious impact they need to be planted in groups of at least five or seven, or more with smaller, slighter forms. Although the look good in close proximity with perennials they still need plenty of light and air so they continue to grow healthily for years to come and are not crowded out by neighbours. They can also be grown in pots and also make good cut flowers and are highly attractive to bees and other pollinators. Plant dry bulbs in October around 3-4in deep in a sunny position in moist, but well-drained soil. Although attractive in seed many alliums will seed around, so remove flower heads when spent if you don’t want this to happen.

Corydalis

Try these woodland perennials with enchanting spring blossoms.

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Early flowering woodland plants are the mainstay of the spring garden, providing splashes of colour before more robust sun-loving perennials catapult the garden into summer. Among the daintiest members of these vernal bloomers are corydalis, commonly known as fumitories or fumeworts, which surprisingly belong to the poppy family.

They come from Northern Europe, through the Himalayas and into China. Among the 300 or more-strong clan are a number of valuable low-growing and spreading perennials which provide masses slender bird-shaped blossoms over many months in white, red, pink, purple, yellow and most strikingly in electric blue. They’re useful as the various species and varieties flower in succession from March through to June, with some providing blossom for weeks.  

Their foliage is deeply lobed and dissected, blue-green to dusky purple and bright yellow in some selected forms, providing a vivid contrast to the flowers. Corydalis flexuosa from China has spawned a number of forms, but is apt to go dormant in summer, starting into growth again in autumn. C. elata and its various hybrids with C. solida are more reliably evergreen, and will also continue flowering for longer.

They spread via slender creeping stems which produce tiny bulbils at the joints, such as C. flexuosa or in the case of C. solidafrom a fleshy tuber. Many are easily propagated from fresh seed, and may self-sow if happy, so small plants can be lifted and moved elsewhere or grown on. Carefully divide tubers when dormant or in summer after flowering.

Corydalis prefer damp, but not constantly wet soil with plenty of organic matter in semi-shade or full shade, so are ideal for those overcast part of gardens or areas beneath overhanging shrubs. As you might guess, slugs and snails can be a problem, so take necessary precautions as the plants start to grow in spring.  

Scented bearded iris

Varieties whose blooms aren't just good-looking, but perfumed too.

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The moment when iris burst into bloom must be one of the most anticipated moments of the gardening calendar. These much-loved perennials are adorned with blooms which span the most varied array of colours and tones of the floral world. No wonder it’s called the rainbow flower, with exotically coloured upper and lower petals and filamentous beard.

But what is more surprising is that some of these varieties also possess a scent, which in particular varieties can be as strong as orange blossom, or spicy, musky or light and floral. In others scent can be more delicate and evasive, but nevertheless welcome on a still day or evening, or used as a cut flower.

Some taller bearded varieties flower early in the season from mid-May, while others perform later in the month into June. By clever use of varieties you can have plants in flower over a number of weeks. If you choose those which are remontant, or flower again in later summer, you can have the best of all worlds.

Iris are best used is a sunny spot at the front of a border, or where they have space and air, rather than being swamped or overshadowed by surrounding plants. They like to grow in moist, well-drained soil, particularly when starting into growth in spring. Although preferring soil that is neutral to slightly acidic, they are adaptable as long as the soil is not constantly damp.

The rhizomes should be planted horizontally so their tops can bask in the sun, which ripens them and encourages them to flower. Covered with surrounding perennials or grown in too shady a spot will make them flower less reliably, eventually wasting away. When the clumps get a little too congested or outgrow their space lift the plants after flowering in late June. Remove the flowering stalks and cut back foliage by 60 per cent. Just keep the youngest rhizomes with a fan of leaves attached and replant in soil refreshed with a little organic matter and water in. 

Ceanothus

Californian lilacs bring vibrant colour to gardens at this time of year.

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If you see a blast of blue in gardens at this time it’s almost certainly a Californian Lilac. Unrelated to the traditional lilac or Syringa, the value of Californian lilac or ceanothus is becoming more widely appreciated. Right now no other shrub offers such a rich and exotic splash of colour, powerfully contrasting with the razzle-dazzle of late tulips and early perennials. As the name suggests these evergreen, semi-evergreen and deciduous plants come from the dry, sunny hills, coastal ranges and forest clearings of California, but also into the Rocky Mountains, Oregon and British Columbia.

Of the 50-plus species around 10 are grown in gardens, which along with various hybrids between them has spawned 50 or so varieties. The larger number of evergreen and semi-evergreen forms with glossy, dark green foliage blossom in spring and early summer, the handful of paler green leaved deciduous species in summer. Although predominantly in shades of blue, a few varieties produce white or even pink blooms. While individual flowers are tiny, they are massed into dense bobble-headed clusters or more open sprays and are attractive to bees and other pollinators. Variegated forms have also arisen with creamy yellow to white variegation.

Plants vary in height and habit, the largest achieving between 3m (10ft) or more high and wide, while some are smaller, others spreading, making them useful for cascading over larger retaining walls. Plants will maintain a tighter growth habit if regularly clipped after flowering. Plants cut back hard should recover when producing new shoots, with deciduous varieties than evergreen and younger, rather than older proving more amenable.

Ceanothus prefer well-drained soil, and are particularly useful for chalky soil and need full sun. They make good wall shrubs, especially for a south-facing position, where the evergreen species flowering now will be more protected from cold, winter winds. The deciduous species are generally hardier.  

Hollyhock

Their period charm will bring cottage-style beauty to borders.

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Beloved by gardeners for centuries, hollyhocks add a stately and romantic note to cottage-style plantings, always creating a spectacle in borders or in narrow spaces alongside a wall or house. They are tall, fast-growing biennials or short-lived perennials, particularly if grown in poor soil.

Members of the mallow family, hollyhocks, or Alcea, come from Asia and Europe, producing spires of flowers from a single or cluster of stems, often topping eight feet or more, with vigorous species and hybrids.

The common pink or red-flowered hollyhock, Alcea rosea, found its way from China around 1575, soon spreading around Europe, as did the Siberian pale-yellow fig-leaved, or Antwerp hollyhock, A. ficifolia. Over time the various species have been variously hybridised to produce a range of colourful varieties. The most distinctive are Chater’s forms, developed by Victorian nurseryman William Chater in the 1860s and 70s, with double petals in a range of vibrant and pastel tones, including an enchanting white.   

Hollyhocks are easily raised from seed and if sown early in January or February with a little warmth, they will flower in the first year. Failing that, sow them in spring and grow on in pots, planting out in summer. Young plants are also currently available for planting out now. Hollyhocks thrive in full sun and in most soils, as long as not wet. Although their questing tap root enables them to exploit moisture at depth, it makes them difficult to transplant once established. In windy sites provide additional support, particularly when in flower.

One of the big drawbacks of hollyhocks is rust disease, which first appeared in the 1870s and progressively weakens the plant and disfigures its appearance with bright rusty-orange pustules. It tends to appear in the second year, steadily worsening year by year, which is why hollyhocks are usually grown as biennials or even annuals and historically fell out of favour.  

Thankfully, species such as A. ficifolia and A. rugosa and recent hybrids, such as Thompson and Morgan’s Halo Series and Spotlight Series from German breeder Jelitto show some resistance and are the ones to grow.

Epimedium

Try these enchanting spring perennials for a shady spot.

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If you’re looking for an elegant and effective way to clothe shady ground with decorative foliage then look no further than epimediums. These plants really come into their own at this time of year as wiry stems support new mottled foliage that unfurls in various shades of red, bronze and lime green. As leaves emerge enchanting sprays of four-horned flowers on strand-like stems appear, in almost every shade, except blue, quivering in the breeze like shoals of tiny tropical sea creatures. Related to berberis, a close inspection of the flowers reveals a more complex structure, the various parts sometimes in different tones giving a bicoloured effect. Known as barrenwort or bishops mitre, most epimediums come from China and Asia, while a few, such as E. perralderianum come from Mediterranean regions, and are more able to withstand drier conditions. While some species are deciduous, others are semi-evergreen or evergreen perennials slowly expanding by fine underground rhizomes to form dense weed-proof clumps. While young foliage is often vibrantly patterned in shades of red or bronze as it matures it usually turns green, but in some species the tonal hints or red margin remain. By winters end if plants are looking a little unkempt, simply shear off the foliage just before the new foliage and flowers emerge.

Being woodland plants epimediums enjoy moist, but well-drained soil, but some, such as E. rubrum and E. versicolor will endure drier conditions once fully established. They appreciate a mulch to help keep roots cool and the foliage in good condition. Clumps can be moved or lifted and divided in autumn.

Compact magnolias

These varieties will perform wherever space is a challenge.

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Nothing celebrates the unveiling of spring quite like a magnolia. The goblet-shaped or starry blossoms of these majestic trees and shrubs are a sight to behold and cherished by many, but the ever-popular Magnolia soulangeana is ultimately a large, spreading shrub or tree, often swamping smaller gardens.

For such spaces, varieties that are smaller in stature or slower-growing are especially welcome and thankfully there’s a range of types to choose from, not only spanning the normal purple, pink and white colour range, but also the coveted yellow-flowered forms. Familiar shrubby species such as M. stellata with its star-like blossoms spawned a number of lovely forms such as pink flowered ‘Jane Platt’. M. stellata was crossed with goblet-flowered M. liliflora and its dark pink flowered form ‘Nigra’ at the US National Arboretum in the mid-1950’s to create a range of eight hybrids known as the ‘Little Girl’ series, including compact variety ‘Susan’. Later flowering, they often escape the ravages of late frosts. Yellow-flowered varieties have been formed by crossing a shrubby form of the late-flowering American cucumber tree M. acuminata with the scented white-flowered Chinese species M. denudata to produce varieties such as ‘Lois’ among others.

Being woodland plants, magnolias do best in acid to neutral soil (pH 6.5), preferably rich in organic matter, but which is not waterlogged or prone to drying out in summer.  They love sun, but do best in dappled light, especially when plants are young. They also hate exposure to cold winds, especially as they break bud and the flowers unfurl. Late frost can also damage the flowers so find the most sheltered spot you have.

When planting them, ensure the fleshy roots are level with the soil surface and not buried, watering them in, irrigating further if the weather turns dry. Once planted they don’t like being moved. Varieties such as ‘Leonard Messel’ will tolerate chalky soil, as long as it does not dry out, or the depth of soil is too thin, but the leaves may become yellowed if it is not to its liking.

Compact climbing roses

These repeat-flowering performers are ideal for small gardens

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We’re all easily seduced by the romantic notion of entering our home beneath a sweetly-scented climbing or rambling rose arcing gracefully over the doorway. The reality is that with space often at a premium not all of us are able to achieve the dream. But there are plenty of rose varieties that will transform a patio wall or fence, or an arbour or gazebo, without risk of rampant growth swamping or weighing down the structure.

If there is no soil in which to grow them they can be easily accommodated in larger pots and containers and attached to trellis on walls or the structure of an arbour. Many have been specifically bred to be smaller, with breeders such as Shropshire-based Chris Warner producing ‘Lady Penelope’, ‘Little Rambler’, ‘Open Arms’ and ‘Summertime’ in the last 30 years, among many other notable varieties. Although having a smaller habit, characteristics such as health, vigour and repeat flowering have not been compromised. Many also possess good fragrance, although some are stronger than others, so it pays to choose when in flower if this is a critical factor for you.

Roses can be established either as bare-root plants when dormant from November to mid-March, but at other times need to be established as pot grown plants. The nurseries identified below are able to supply either. Roses need moist, well-drained soil to establish, with a position in sun to semi-shade, while some such as ‘White Star’ are able to tolerate shady conditions, such as found on a north wall. When growing in pots use John Innes No3, with additional grit or Perlite added for drainage rather than multipurpose compost. Final containers should not be smaller than 38cm (15in) in diameter otherwise they will not be able to achieve their ultimate size and spread.

Prune and train the plants in late winter, butting out unruly shoots and removing thin, wispy growth. Feed with chicken manure pellets when plants start into growth and liquid feed with a high potash fertiliser when flower buds are produced. 

Spring primroses

Forms of our native primrose offer a captivating seasonal display.

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Vying with the snowdrop and bluebell to be the nation’s iconic flower of spring, the primrose, Primula vulgaris, must rate as one of the most beautiful flowers of our woodlands and hedgerows, a potent harbinger that spring has finally begun. It has long enchanted gardeners too and this humble perennial is given pride of place in less intensively cultivated spaces.

The species is widespread throughout Europe, where it inhabits moist meadows and woodland margins. With such a wide distribution, it is unsurprising there are geographical variants, such as the variety sibthorpii from the Crimea and Black Sea region with pink, red or purple flowers, equally at home in the garden. A white flowered form also grows on the Balearic Islands. Different flower structures have also been selected from the wild since Elizabethan times, and Hose in-Hose, where one flower erupts from the one behind and Jack-in-the-Green, where leaves produce a ruff behind the blossoms are two of the most distinct.

Gold Laced polyanthus, (from hybrids between P. vulgaris and cowslip P. veris) appeared during the 16th century, and were popularised by enthusiasts in the 18th and early 19th century. Double flowered forms also became popular at this time, with some of most robust varieties surviving to charm gardeners today.

All the various forms of primrose are easy to grow, best in cool air and moist, but well-drained conditions in dappled sunlight to semi-shade. The wild and fertile species will self-sow to create drifts of new plants. If self-seeding isn’t required remove spent blossoms.  Specific varieties should be propagated vegetatively by lifting and dividing clumps in late summer and autumn. If divisions are small grow on the slips in a nursery bed or pots until large enough to replant. Dividing clumps every three to four years will help keep plants rejuvenated. Forking in compost around them will also help boost vigour.   

Bergenia

Evergreens with irrepressible foliage and cheerful blossoms

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Uncharitable though it maybe, but the common names for bergenia, namely elephant’s ears or pig squeak, certainly sum up the leafy characteristics of this bold band of valuable evergreen to semi-evergreen perennials. Although proving effective groundcover plants throughout the year, it’s in winter and spring they have real value, with the foliage of some varieties glowing shades of red and bronze when subjected to low temperatures, while all spring to life from late March and April with clusters of purple-red, pink or white saxifrage flowers atop stout stems which last many weeks.

Bergenias are durable plants, for the most part totally hardy and able to endure prolonged wet weather more readily than many other evergreen perennials. This is because they come from wet and windy climates from Afghanistan, via the Himalayas through to China, growing in rock crevices and over screes and meadows in upland areas. To endure such climates they have evolved thick, leathery glossy leaves which makes them very durable in the garden, whether growing in sun or shade, but better quality foliage and flowers are produced more readily in brighter light.

They are generally unfussy as to soil, but grow best in ones that are moist and rich in humus, rather than those which are droughted in full sun, although many will endure dry shade, especially beneath trees. They are also useful for heavy clay soil. Bergenias spread slowly or modestly by creeping stems, which like iris should be positioned on the surface, not buried when planting. Lift older clumps when they have deteriorated in the centre, replanting rooted younger growths. Once the flowers are over they can be trimmed off and old leaves removed. A general slow-release fertiliser working in around the roots will invigorate fresh new growth.

Aubrietia

This spring rockery plant will delight with a curtain of colour

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At some point this spring your eye will be drawn to a cascade of magenta blossom daubing a stony bank, wall or border edge. It will be aubrietia, the astonishingly bright spring alpine that creates waves of neon flowers on soft, cushiony mounds of delicate green foliage. If grown near the edge of a wall or bank the stems and flowers will quickly make their way over the side to create a curtain of colour. 

Once a stalwart of rockeries, it’s not seen as much now they have fallen out of fashion, but it deserves to be. It is an ideal plant with which to fill the gaps between stones in rocky paths, add colour to tricky stony soil, or team with spring bulbs in containers.

The flowers may be tiny but there are masses of them, in every shade of mauve, deepening to indigo blue and at the other end of the spectrum, pale baby pinks and, rarely, white. The tiny flowers have the distinctive four-petalled cross shape of a brassica, and as unlikely as it may seem this plant is related to cabbages. Like all brassicas it thrives in limey soil, which is why it is so at home growing next to the limey mortar in stone and brick walls. This also makes it ideal for difficult chalk soils. But it will thrive in most soils so long as there is sharp drainage and it’s in full sun.

Later in the summer the leaves and stems will invariably start to look dried out and stringy, but you can avoid this by shearing back the flowers and foliage immediately after flowering. This will encourage the plant to grow new leaves in bushy mounds, a more pleasing sight in your garden for the rest of the year.

Species daffodils

These natural types have British and Mediterranean origins

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Golden daffodils are a sight to lift the spirits this month, their sunny trumpet faces opening up to the warming spring weather. There are plenty to choose from, but for a little brightness with a lot of difference why not try one of the rarer species forms. These refined little treasures have a grace and charm that’s a cut above some of the big and blousy varieties.

They hail from as far south as North Africa, so their needs differ according to the type you plant. Our wild British daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, is a species daffodil in its own right. But because of habitat loss it’s now found in only a few places in the far west and north of the UK, so most daffodils you see growing ‘wild’ will more probably be garden escapees. The true native daffodil has a golden yellow trumpet with a ring of paler lemon-yellow petals, and blueish-green foliage, thriving in damp meadows and woodland edges in sun or semi-shade.

The Tenby daffodil, N. obvallaris, is thought to be a subspecies and has classic golden colouring. It’s a tougher too, often described as ‘bomb proof’, and it will be happy nodding away in almost any garden soil with very little help. Daffodils should never be dug up from the wild so make sure you buy them from a reputable supplier, especially when buying these British natives.

Many narcissus species available to us originate from the mountains of Spain and Portugal, such as the distinctive N. bulbocodium with its large hoop-skirt flower, or the creamy white bell-shaped, N. triandus, also known as angel’s tears. It can be hard to find the pure species of this rare daffodil, but many of its varieties such as ‘Hawera’ and ‘Petrel’ still have the same attractive and unusual rounded-out bell shape.

A few Spanish species, such as N. tazetta (the famous paperwhite that can be forced for Christmas flowers) aren’t hardy enough for growing outdoors, but most will do well in a sunny spot in the garden anywhere in the UK. They often thrive where the bulbs can be baked in dry soil during their summer dormant period.

 

Camellia williamsii hybrids

These large and long-flowering stunners are reliable and hardy

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The very fact we can grow camellias outdoors almost anywhere in the UK is down to the advent of the beautiful Williams hybrid camellia, which owes its inception to a chance discovery 100 years ago. In previous centuries camellias had been a shrub purely the preserve of the wealthy, needing a large greenhouse to accommodate the tender evergreen leaves. The Williams hybrids were to change that.

In 1918 Camellia saluenesis, a plant with sumptuous pink flowers was found in China. Its seed was sent back to Caerhays Castle in Cornwall, whose owner J C Williams had funded that plant hunting trip, and in the 1920s he successfully crossed it with C. japonica, a hardier plant with tiny blooms grown mainly for its glossy foliage.

The resulting camellias, named C. williamsii, combined hardiness with the large and translucent blooms of the new discovery. Many have long blooming periods from early to late spring. Some, such as ‘November Pink’, bloom as early as autumn. Their names often nod to their birthplace, such as the clear pale pink ‘J C Williams’, and sugar pink ‘Charles Michael’, named for the head gardener at the time, and you can still see some of the original hybrids growing at Caerhays today.

Camellias grow well in sun or shade, but they need acidic soil. If you have limey or chalk soil the solution is to grow them in a large container filled with ericaceous compost, but pay special attention to watering through mid to late summer, which is when the buds for next year’s flowers form. Try to always water with rainwater, as tap water is alkaline, but in a drought an occasional drench with tap water is better than no water at all.

C. williamsii hybrids are fully hardy down to -15C, though they all benefit with shelter from cold winter winds. They are often best grown as a wall shrub facing south or west, where the additional warmth and protection will see them thrive. However, avoid planting them next to very old walls that may have lime mortar, as this will leech into the surrounding soil and cause the leaves to turn yellow.

Brunnera macrophylla

The spring displays of Siberian bugloss light up shady areas.

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While many gardeners grow pulmonaria for their silver-splashed leaves and forget-me-not flowers in spring, for sheer springtime impact the smart money these days is on Siberian bugloss or great forget-me-not, Brunnera macrophylla.

These stout, clump-forming or slightly spreading deciduous perennials have heart-shaped leaves, and like pulmonaria are covered in airy sprays of long-lasting forget-me-not blossoms in shades of blue and white. Although pulmonaria come in a wider range of colours, brunnera is resistant to the mildew that blights many varieties of pulmonaria after they have peaked. In the wild brunnera comes from the Caucasus, growing in cool woods and other moist, shady places.

As a plant it has impact, especially in its silvered and variegated forms, which also look good in pots located in a shade spot, where other sun-lovers would struggle. It grows wild in the Caucasus region of Eastern Europe, growing in cool woods and other moist, shady places. Likewise in cultivation it likes cool, moist, shady conditions where it will thrive in a wide variety of soils, even heavy clay. They generally struggle in sun, where the variegated forms easily scorch, although some of the thicker leaved varieties such as ‘Silver Heart’ will tolerate stronger light as long as the soil remains moist. They are generally easy to grow and long-lived plants. To propagate them simply lift and divide in autumn.

Trim back tatty leaves in late winter before new foliage emerges and remove spent flower stems to keep the plant looking neat where it will remain a real asset in the garden. 

Hybrid hellebores

Combinations of species have yielded varieties for almost all situations.

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Recent years have seen an explosion in the range of helleborus hybrids available to gardeners. The great thing is that that careful selection has created a number of varieties of real elegance, adaptability and durability. Unlike many snowdrop varieties, most are grown commercially, usually via tissue culture, making them more widely available and easier on the wallet!

The characteristics of each parent are also represented. Besides producing a gorgeous range of long-lasting flowers, this has also boosted the ornamental qualities of their foliage, with shapely leaves and silvery patterning a characteristic of many. The habitat preferences of the parents are also embodied in the various varieties, which means they are able to thrive in situations that the run of traditional Lenten roses, or Helleborus hybridus, would not tolerate.

H. hybridus is in reality a complex race of hybrids involving five or six related species. Over time it has resulted in an astonishing range of flowers, reaching various states of doubleness and flower colours from almost black to red, yellow and peachy shades, self-coloured, or spotted or blotched, with various double or anemone forms. It prefers moist soil or even clay in semi-shade, struggling in dry soil in sun.

H. lemonnierae, developed in Germany, has produced a vigorous plant with large forward-facing flowers on tall stems, which again prefers damp soil and semi-shade, but is also good in pots. Conversely H. ballardiae, H. ericsmithii and H. nigercors have variously used shade tolerant Christmas rose H. niger with drought tolerant H. argutifolius and sun-loving H. lividus enabling them to tolerate more exposure to sun and drier soil, with H. nigricors even tolerating dry shade if watered until established. There has never been so much choice in hellebores, and now everyone can try their hand and be successful.

Viola odorata

Fall under the spell of the charming sweet violet this spring

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As winter fades and wildflowers stir into life one of the earliest blossoms to be found carpeting our woodlands, hedge banks and open grasslands with splashes of sea-blue blossom is the sweet violet, Violet odorata. It’s a low, carpeting perennial with rounded semi-evergreen leaves no more than 15cm (6in) high and although found throughout most of the UK, is possibly only native up to Westmoreland.

It luxuriates in semi-shade in moist, rich soils, particularly those which are neutral or alkaline, but it is adaptable, particularly in gardens, spreading by creeping stems or stolons and self-sown seed and can find itself an unwanted plant in lawns. Like all wild plants it has attracted the attention of gardeners who have selected interesting variants from the wild, in gardens or deliberately bred them to create different flower shapes and colours in single and double forms in blues, purple, pink and even apricot, as in variety ‘Sulphurea’. Most are sweetly scented, some more so than others, and a posy of them for a tiny vase or even an egg-cup placed on a windowsill always makes a charming feature. It was a popular plant in Victorian times, grown as a cottage-garden cut flower and used in the production of many cosmetic fragrances and perfumes until the early 20th century. Both the leaves and flowers are edible and can be added to salads to add an exciting visual twist.

Easy to grow, they are useful for under planting or associating with other spring bulbs, such as snowdrops and winter aconites, and other early shade-loving perennials such as wood anemones and pulmonaria. Grown in shallow pots or pans they can be lifted more closely to appreciate their demure charms and captivating perfume.

 

Snowdrops

Recently discovered varieties are becoming more readily available

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Snowdrop mania or galanthophilia shows no sign of abating. Each year eagle-eyed enthusiasts scour gardens throughout the UK and Europe on the lookout for interesting new variants of the 20 or so species and numerous hybrids of this enchanting winter garden staple.

The number of named forms in existence now runs into thousands, with the latest coveted finds often changing hands for hundreds of pounds. Internet sites such as eBay buzz with frenzied excitement as professional and amateur enthusiasts vie with each other to sell their floral treasures.

Desirable traits include size of flower, length, shape and arrangement of the inner and outer petals (tepals) and the nature of the green markings on each. While so-called ‘yellow’ types are well known, the scramble is currently on to breed different coloured forms. Named ‘pink’ and ‘apricot’ forms are starting to emerge, but as yet colours are pale or muddy, hardly living up to the description, but in time, who knows? Names are also amusing, fanciful or evocative with ‘John’s Y-fronts’, ‘Heffalump’, ‘Fatty Puff’ and ‘Ivy Cottage Corporal’ among the ranks this year.

Upshot of this activity is that the best, distinct and garden-worthy forms with inherent vigour are starting to become more widely available and cheaper after being twin-scaled, the technique that enables individual bulbs to be split to form new plants, and then grown on to be further bulked up by division. Even so bulbs can cost anywhere between £15-£30, so always buy in flower, or ‘in the green’ as divisions from reputable sources. Or why not visit a snowdrop festival or a National Garden Scheme ‘snowdrop garden’ – there are many venues taking part around the country in the next few weeks.

 

Hyacinths

Beautiful, scent-filled blossoms get the season off to a flying start

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At this time of year when we need uplifts of bright colour and potent scent, nothing provides them more compellingly than the hyacinth. Whether grown naturally outdoors, or forced in pots for a winter display on windowsills, their long-lasting, waxy-petalled candles of starry blossom are always an arresting site in shades of blue, red, pink, orange, violet, yellow and white. Although there are some double-flowered forms, recent breeding has concentrated on developing large, single flowers in clear colours.

In the wild, Hyacinthus orientalis inhabits rocky limestone slopes and cliffs in the eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Wild plants are sparsely flowered, a trait adjusted over at least 400 years to produce the densely flowered types we see today. In their heyday in the 18th century, more than 2,000 varieties were listed in the Netherlands, which remains the primary source of supply. They became so popular at that time that a short-lived hyacinth mania, similar to that with tulips, broke out in Holland around 1730.

The RHS undertook a trial of recent hyacinth varieties in 2012, with six receiving the Award of Garden Merit (AGM) for outstanding performance, bringing the total of AGM varieties to 15 from the 50 or so varieties generally available. The National Collection of hyacinths held by farmer Alan Shipp in Cambridgeshire currently holds in excess of 170 varieties.

Hyacinths are adaptable bulbs, preferring a well-drained soil and sun or part shade. Plant 10cm (4in) deep in autumn for flowering from mid-March. In pots, use a multi-purpose compost, with added grit or Perlite for drainage to flower from March, or earlier if you use specially prepared bulbs.

Chinese fringe flower

These evergreen shrubs will provide exotic, late-winter blooms

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Visit any good garden centre in late January and February and you’ll often find a maroon-red leaved shrub dotted with pinky-red, tasselled, lightly-scented flowers on sale. It’s almost certainly a variety of the Chinese fringe flower, Loropetalum chinense.

In recent years this mound-forming, evergreen shrub has been gaining profile, such is the mounting interest in developing the valuable range of plants that perform in the darkest days of the year. Part of the witch hazel family Hamamelidaceae, the three species of loropetalum come from China, Japan and south-east Asia, but it’s only the Chinese species L. chinense that can be reliably grown in the UK. Fairly slow growing and not bone hardy, it generally tolerates around -5C (23F), and does best if given a spot in dappled shade or sun and sheltered from cold, freezing winds.

Like witch hazels, it prefers a moist, but well-drained, neutral or slightly acidic soil, struggling in those which dry out in summer or are constantly wet in winter. In colder climes they can also be grown in pots of ericaceous compost, brought indoors into a cool conservatory or greenhouse when the weather turns more seriously cold. Although loropetalum can achieve a height of 4-5m (13-16ft 6in) in the wild, in Britain they rarely get above 1.5m (5ft), depending on the variety, with new growth produced from summer. Selections from red-leaved form L. rubrum, with pink or red flowers, are generally seen, while the wild species has white, tasselled flowers, as found in variety ‘Carolina Moonlight’. Besides flowering in late winter, blossoms are also produced intermittently through the year. Once successfully established they need little care, so why not give one a try the next time you see them?