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Propagation breeds perfection

TWO monumental things - well three if you count the earthquake - occurred recently. June 21 was the year's shortest day, meaning it's only two months to spring and the promise of warmer weather. Also hellebores, jewels in the winter garden, started to stir, their lush new foliage and nodding flowers a joyful sight at a time of year when nothing much else is happening.

Called the winter or Lenten rose, because in the northern hemisphere it flowers during Lent, this herbaceous clumping perennial is not a rose at all. In fact it's a member of the Ranunculaceae family, which counts among its members aquilegia, clematis and delphinium. The genus is divided into the 'caulescent' (stemmed) and 'acaulescent' (unstemmed) species.

The most common form of the Helleborus genus, which numbers about 17 species - the black H. niger, which refers to the plant's black roots - is known as the Christmas rose because legend has it that a plant sprouted in the snow from the tears of a young girl who didn't have a present for the baby Jesus.

Because of its poisonous nature, it is believed to have ties to summoning demons and was also reputed to have proved the death of Alexander the Great after he took an overdose of medication containing hellebore. But this charming genus, such a star in the winter garden, belies any murderous intent.

Breeder Peter Leigh from the Post Office Farm Nursery in Woodend is captivated by these semi-woodland plants. He has been growing them for more than 10 years and is always trying to propagate unusual varieties.

At the moment his challenge is the rare cream and purple H. vescarius, which comes from the dry climes of eastern Turkey and Syria, but the plants aren't setting much seed. Another rare variety is the delicate pink H. thibetanus from China, which is proving as difficult to reproduce as its Middle East counterpart. ''Both are suited to our climate, and they're deciduous, but they just won't set much seed. I am gradually increasing the stock plants though,'' Leigh says.


One of his favourites is H. argutifolius, a native of Corsica and Sardinia. With sprays of apple-green flower heads and large, dark green serrated leaves (they're commonly grown for their foliage) it's a tough variety but aficionados prefer the bright and unusual colours for a more dramatic winter display. H. orientalis is the most popular variety, especially when mass planted, for its dark green foliage and long-stemmed flowers in a variety of colours from pure white through to different shades of pink, plum-purple and almost black. The double forms of H. x hybridus, such as the double picotee with its white flowers featuring a delicate line of crimson along the petal margin and dark markings, are enduring favourites. Leigh says the double white variety is popular ''because of the white garden thing''.

''The new species of H. sternii, a hybrid between H. argutifolius and H. lividis, has lovely spring foliage and is a nice pinkish colour.''

Leigh has about 600-700 stock plants that are kept in a separate polyhouse to keep the bees out. ''Bees can cross a variety with another one and that spoils the original cultivar.''

Their popularity is as much for their toughness to withstand drought as the floral display they create in winter (they're also a good cut flower). ''They came through well in the drought because they've got big underground rhizomes and deep root systems. Many customers said they lost a lot of other plants at that time but not the hellebores.''

Leigh, who operates his business online, also opens his nursery on Sundays in winter starting tomorrow until September 30 (10am-4pm). He says people choose their plants from the online catalogue but can form a different opinion when they see them ''in the flesh''.

There is a misconception that hellebores like deep shade but, being deciduous in the wild, they prefer shade in summer and as much light as possible in winter.

They are easy to maintain; just cut off the old foliage in late autumn/early winter and mulch in spring. Their main growth period is from mid-autumn to mid-spring so this is the best time to plant, divide, move and feed them.

Leigh says a lot of breeding work is being done in countries such as England and Japan.

And the Japanese were not afraid to charge for them either. ''I saw a double yellow one in a nursery in a 17-centimetre pot that was gorgeous and they were charging the equivalent of $270 for it. And they'd get it because people in Japan only have small balconies so they only buy a few special plants.''

â– Post Office Farm Nursery, 934 Ashbourne Road, Woodend. Peter Leigh is giving an illustrated talk on hellebores at Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens on July 18, 10.30am, at Mueller Hall. Members of the Friends of the Botanic Gardens $15, non-members $25. Inquiries 9650 6398.