Gardening: Hazel Cross Farm Helleborus

PUBLISHED: 10:00 25 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:05 20 February 2013

Gardening: Hazel Cross Farm Helleborus

Gardening: Hazel Cross Farm Helleborus

Just over the Peak District border into Staffordshire Mike Byford has nurtured the country's top collection of Helleborus – a plant that's achieving newfound popularity

At a time of year when we most appreciate a cheering sign of life and loveliness in our gardens, snowdrops and crocus are probably the first plants to come to mind. However, a growing number of enthusiasts have started to appreciate the attractions of hellebores and have been heading for the Staffordshire moorlands in their hunt for special new varieties.

Mike Byford and his wife Trish live on the outskirts of the village of Kingsley with spectacular views down into the Churnet Valley and across to the Roaches. Mike, a biologist who initially studied for a degree in forestry at Bangor University, began collecting hellebores over 20 years ago. While visiting a National Trust property in the depths of a gloomy winter he noticed a patch of white delicately patterned flowers in woodland and has been hooked ever since. His passion for hellebores has taken him across Europe (although in many places their habitat is under threat, the Balkans and Turkey are amongst the best places to find them growing naturally) and led him to compile one of the best collections of natural species and hybridized plants in the world. He registered as having a national plant collection about five years ago and today receives enquiries for plants from as far afield as the USA and Japan.

Certainly, evidence of his enthusiasm for these elegant yet deceptively tough plants was everywhere to be seen at his Hazles Cross Farm home. Not only was an impressive poly-tunnel packed with carefully grouped species but there were plants in the nursery greenhouses, the garden, in pots surrounding the front door and they had even invaded the house. Trish told me that during the severe weather before Christmas some precious species were even to be found in their bath.

Given that it takes from three to five years before a plant grown from seed is ready to flower, space is at a premium. Indeed when Mike and his wife moved to the Moorlands six years ago countryside, solitude, wildness and space for his collection were the prime considerations. Although Mike also collects trilliums and woodland anemones plants that like similar conditions hellebores are his speciality. He is proud to have produced two new hybrids by crossing H. thibetanus with H. niger notoriously difficult to accomplish successfully. A tour round the poly-tunnel revealed that Mike has amassed a splendid collection from what is essentially a restricted palette. Theres a huge variety of subtle shades and markings, with flat faced or picotee-edged sepals, doubles, semi-doubles, inner ruffs, and a range of attractive foliage from variegated to darkest green and bushy to razor thin. Mike is intent on developing even more colours and forms and finer foliage although patiently nurturing a plant for several years before finding out how successful youve been means that this is a long term aim.

Despite his years studying and breeding hellebores Mike is still addicted and keen to keep improving the species and creating new plants. When asked for his personal favourite, he immediately chose the Chinese H. thibetanus and mentioned his keen desire to see them growing in the wild in China something of which Im sure this countrys great pioneer plant hunters and collectors would have heartily approved.

Hazles Cross Farm Nursery, Hollins Lane, Kingsley, Staffs ST10 2EP
(Tel: 01538 752669) is open January to April: Mon, WedFri 10am-3.30pm; also February to March on Saturdays10am-2pm. It is advisable to phone before visiting.

Plant Heritage and National Collections - Plant Heritage, formerly The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG), is a charity founded in 1978 to encourage: the propagation and conservation of cultivated plants in the British Isles; research into their origins, importance and environments; and the education of the public in cultivated plant conservation. Following concern in the horticultural world about a loss of plant variety, it was decided to form National Plant Collections. Botanic gardens, universities and expert amateur and professional horticulturalists all got involved and today there are over 650 national collections. Most of the collections are based around a related group and all are open to the public at some time. Prospective collections are carefully assessed and those existing are monitored to ensure collections of excellence.

For more information see or contact Plant Heritage, 12 Home Farm, Loseley Park, Guildford, GU3 1HSTel: 01483 447540.

Renishaw Hall - Sunday 27th February, Renishaw Hall, Nr Sheffield S21 3WB, Fanfare for Spring. Explore the gardens and woodland. Five specialist nurseries will also be selling spring flowering plants. Admission 3.50.

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