Winter's most exquisite flower

PUBLISHED: 15:15 08 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:40 20 February 2013

Basil Smith

Basil Smith

Kate Bull went to meet Basil Smith, the distinguished breeder of hellebores and former dance band leader, at his nursery in Ullingswick. Photographs by Sabina Rüber.

Kate Bull went to meet Basil Smith, the distinguished breeder of hellebores and former dance band leader, at his nursery in Ullingswick. Photographs by Sabina Rüber.

Mention hellebores to any plant-loving Herefordian, and they will tell you that the best place to find really good ones is not a local nursery or garden centre, but a health food shop in the centre of Hereford. Fodders in Church Street has become renowned among local gardeners for its gorgeous selection of hellebores in the early months of the year, all of them tenderly reared by Basil Smith.

Between January and March, Basil will sell over 6,000 hellebores, mostly direct from his home, Linnett Farm in Ullingswick; Fodders is his only other outlet. An articulate but modest man, he doesn't even have a website selling his plants, describing his work as "a curious hobby of mine with a business slant".

Standing in his greenhouse in November amidst a sea of dark green leaves, I ask what excites him about this particular plant. "Hellebores are so unstable genetically that things happen - that's what makes them so rewarding," he explains. "Part of the work on this scale is making sure you've got a good choice of plants with the basic characteristics in all forms, because people will come with a specific idea of what they want. But really the fun is anything unusual, something you haven't seen before. Very often they surprise you."

Hellebores originate from central Europe, and are found in the wild in huge colonies. Left to their own devices, the heavy seed will remain fairly local and drop in the vicinity of the parent plant. But there is a huge variability even within species. Helleborus odorus, for example, will all be green or lime green, or perhaps have a sheen of yellow on the back, but there will be a great variation in the details of each plant. However carefully you breed them, hellebores remain unpredictable and highly individual.

Basil's own favourite form is the anenome-centred, sometimes called the semi-double, where the collar in the middle contrasts with the five sepals, which he says is quite difficult to achieve. "You really get only a few by accident. If you could stabilise them so that you could cross them consistently, we would make much more rapid progress".

Basil has not been a lifelong hellebore enthusiast. He was born in 1929, in the house where he now lives. His father, grandfather and great grandfather before him were all agricultural contractors, and his two older brothers also went into the family business. Basil says he was "lucky" in being the youngest, which allowed him to follow his mother into teaching. He was the first in his family to go to university - his father never read and banned books from the house - and after teaching for 10 years he went to Cambridge University to do a PhD in Development Economics, which he loved. In fact, he loved being a student so much that he grew away from the idea of teaching, and ended up working as a civil servant in London for the rest of his professional life.

He didn't even have a window box in his London flat - but as a teenager he had been

interested in flowers, and grew several hundred unusual alpines in the garden, financed by money he earned from his band - The Golden Linnett Dance Band, which many older Herefordians will remember.

Then, when he retired from the civil service and moved back to his childhood home, he started breeding plants. He began with hardy cyclamen and introduced around 15 new forms, selling the seed by mail order all over the world. At the same time, if a plant took his eye he would start propagating it, and he started to branch out into perennials.

Initially, hellebores were no more important to him than any other plant - but then he heard of Helen Ballard. "Helen is the person who put hellebores on the map in the 20th century," he explains. "She was a farmer's wife near Malvern who, for no rational reason, took a shine to hellebores and started to work with them. She went on breeding them, in beds outside, completely unknown for years. It's unbelievable the difference that she made."

Hellebores nowadays are upright plants with good shaped blooms in wonderful, clear colours - but they were unknown to Helen at first. She started with an untidy-looking form of the plant, with many blooms misshapen and floppy, and with what she described as "muddy colours". So she began selecting hellebores with the objective of getting a tidy plant with outward-looking blooms and cleaner colours. After 20 years, during which time she even taught herself German so that she could research hellebores in Europe, she was persuaded to show her plants at the Royal Horticultural Society in the early 1980s. She won a gold medal, and hellebores have been 'in' ever since.

"When I heard about Helen, I rang her up and asked if I could come and see her. She said, 'oh, if you must'. She hated visitors, couldn't tolerate people! But she sat me down and taught me how to grow hellebores. She just loved them, and somehow I caught that."

When I ask whether he feels he is carrying forward her banner, Basil demurs. "That would be presumptuous. In the hellebore world, anyone who has done anything has started with Helen's work. She was the complete pioneer. I suppose the line in this country is Helen Ballard, Elizabeth Strangman, John Massey - and me. But we're all sitting on Helen's shoulders."

On a dull November day, it's hard to imagine what Basil's greenhouse will look like when 2,000 hellebores are all flowering in February. He reckons people can't go anywhere else and see that many hellebores in bloom at once. No wonder people come from all over the UK - "from wherever word has reached" - to buy their plants there.

If you want one of Basil's wonderful hellebores, make sure you pass Fodders or visit Linnett Farm this spring, because he is trying to sell up and move back to the south east, intending this to be his last selling season. He won't be taking any hellebores with him, he says, but he has not shed the plant-breeding bug entirely as he plans to start growing a few snowdrops once he has moved. Galanthophiles should certainly get ready to visit Kingston-on-Thames when the time comes.

  • Linnett Farm Plants, Ullingswick is open Saturdays, Sundays & Wednesdays, 10am-5pm, January-April; tel 01432 820337 or 07917 787856.

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