In February snowdrops and hellebores are indispensable, but we must know how to use them and avoid the hype that surrounds them. It is not the plants, but the people who promote and sell them that I have a problem with.
Snowdrops at their best create sheets of white nodding flowers around the dark stems of the trees in woodlands. To use them well in our gardens we need to copy nature and plant them generously in wide drifts. Of course a small clump here and there is pretty, but it as glistening carpets that they can really lift our spirits at the end of a long dull winter.
The hype surrounding snowdrops started in England and has now spread to Holland and Germany. Hundreds of cultivars have been named that differ in subtle ways from one another. Collectors with nothing better to do in February crawl in the mud to note the green dots on one form, the green stripe on another or the slightly different flower shape of the next carefully labeled plant along the line. Such obsessive behaviour is harmless and would not matter if it wasn’t for the fact that now the supply outstrips demand and the prices of these cultivars are excessive; 25 Euro for a single bulb is not uncommon. Snobbishness and elitism in any form irritates me and this is what the world of the snowdrop has become.
Coupled with this trend is the poor quality of the plants actually being sold by the so-called specialist growers. Convention states that snowdrops should be replanted in the green, in other words whilst or just after they finish flowering. This is in fact the easiest way to increase your stock and spread them around your garden, but when the plants are sold this way experience has taught me that what you can expect to receive are weak, sickly plants that will not easily recover and grow strongly. Professional bulb growers in Holland are of the opinion that dormant bulbs carefully package and not allowed to dry out are much better and will establish far better, but you wont find the rarities offered in this way.
In conclusion, should a reliable bulb firm offer any of the more unusual forms and species of snowdrops at reasonable prices by all means try them, but if it is an effective garden display that matters to you then a hundred or more of the common single snowdrop Galanthus nivalis will give you far more pleasure.
Moving on to hellebore hybrids, again there is nothing wrong with the plants. However, collectors and specialist nurseries promote aristocratic forms at exorbitant prices. No matter how beautiful the inside of flower may be, if it hangs its head and cannot be seen when you walk through your garden its use is limited to that of a cut flower. Almost black flowered forms are especially prized, but against the dark soil of winter they will be invisible. We need hellebores in our gardens but only those that flower effectively. White and yellow flowered forms work best. My advice is ignore their pedigrees an buy your hellebores when in flower. Pick strong growing, upright plants with flowers that look good from a standing position – it is the plant rather than the name of its grower that will persuade me to grow it in my garden.