Surprise in a Country Garden

Contributor: Leonie Twentyman-Jones

Photographs: Margaret Richards

During a recent visit to Swellendam we went to inspect the Mayville garden which is noted for its wonderful collection of heritage roses. Mayville, a T-shaped Cape Dutch house which was built in 1853, was bequeathed to the Drostdy Museum by Miss Nita Steyn who expressed the wish that ‘a rose garden for the pleasure of visitors’ be established.

Mayville House Photo: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Mayville House
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Gwen Fagan, an expert on the restoration of historical landscapes in the Western Cape and extremely knowledgeable on the early roses grown at the Cape, was asked to establish the garden. Some of you may be lucky enough to possess Mrs Fagan’s magnificent book Roses at the Cape of Good Hope first published in 1988. She collected old roses from mission villages, cemeteries, farms and small villages in hidden corners of the Cape and succeeded in restoring gardens at several of the old wine estates, where her husband, well-known Cape Town architect, Gawie Fagan, was busy restoring the buildings.

HelleboreOf course August was much too early to see any roses, but what we did find in flower were numerous clumps of Hellebores. I had never actually seen them flowering before. A friend gave us some tiny plants several years ago but they have never shown any desire to flower. What a delight! They were full of flowers – different shades of pink, white with purple spots, plain white and cream.

Hellebore-plantHellebores, known as the Christmas rose in the Northern hemisphere, belong to the Ranunculaceae family. There is a wonderful legend about a little country girl who visited the stable in Bethlehem, and wept because she had no gift for the Christ child. Her tears fell in the snow and a hovering angel came down and showed her the Christmas rose poking through the snow to use as her gift.

Hellebores are tough perennials that do not like being disturbed. They have evergreen foliage and a large range of different coloured flowers which can last for up to three months. They like growing in humus rich soil and prefer to be shaded from the heat of the day.  Apparently the seeds are spread by snails, who eat the oil covering the seeds and carry the rest away in their slime. All parts of the plants are toxic if eaten, so keep them away from young children and pets. They are good companion plants for Azaleas and can help to create a lovely herbaceous border.