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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 21 April 2017 by Tim Ingram

Hellebores - Part 2

Hellebores - Part 2

So much happens in the garden through spring that it can be hard to take in, and certainly hard to find time to write about. But one group of plants that run through the woodland garden and flowers for three or four months is the hellebore. More than this, they provide a structure to the plantings throughout the whole year because of their persistant foliage, while so many woodland genera die down in summer. The picture above shows variation in their flowers - the result of horticultural selection - but in the series of photos below, running into high summer (and later into autumn and winter), the leaves of hellebores remain strong features all of the time. Even in a very dry summer as we experienced late into September in south-east England last year, the deep roots and sclerophyllous leaves of hellebores enable them to resist drought, and conserve moisture.

... here in late July at one of the warmest and driest times in the year.

This is another view under the apples in April when so many woodland genera flower, and the hellebores have already been making a show since February, and the darker forms in particular can go on into May and early June, when the seed matures and can be collected (in fact around now is a good time to remove flowering shoots to prevent excessive self-seeding, or too mark those from which seed needs to be watched out for later into summer).

In late autumn and early winter, when the earliest snowdrops begin to flower (the picture shows a very early form of Galanthus elwesii given to us by John Noakes), we remove the foliage of hellebores to overcome the problem of the emerging young flowers being eaten at ground level by mice, hidden beneath the previous year's foliage.

So it is no surprise that hellebores are such strong components of the woodland garden; few other genera give such contribution to plantings throughout the whole year.

To go back to the species, it is Helleborus orientalis in particular that has led to the profusion of garden hybrids with other species. True H. orientalis is rarely grown in gardens but we have this fine colony grown in isolation in our front garden, originally derived from seed supplied by Jim Archibald.

Tom Mitchell, on Facebook, has also referred to pictures of the strongly coloured wild form H. orientalis subspecies abchasicus in the Caucasus (for those who haven't discovered his website, see here:, which includes fine pictures of many other genera in the wild that associate well with hellebores in the garden too). Another well known wild form is H. orientalis subsp. guttatus, with heavy spotting within the flowers.

From these wild forms Eric Smith and Jim Archibald developed the fine strain they called 'Cosmos', of which this is a good example raised from Jim's seed.

These are other examples described in one of Jim and Jenny Archibald's seedlists...

And this marvellous picture of Jim taken from Michael Baron's book, 'The Garden at Brandy Mount House', recently published by the AGS.

Much more information and precise details of seed and plants introduced by Jim and Jenny Archibald is available in the archive held on the website of the sister society of the AGS, the Scottish Rock Garden Club; see here :-

Another significant plant ('strain') from these earlier days of breeding hellebores is 'Orion', where the nectaries are strongly coloured and the colour suffuses into the tepals.

Many good hellebores in our garden have been selected from seed raised plants ex. Jim & Jenny Archibald, including this good white and an unusual plant with strong veining in the flowers.

A good memory of visiting Jim Archibald in South Wales a decade or more ago is this wonderful specimen of the true Helleborus x hybridus 'Ballard's Black', growing under cover in a polytunnel with a collection of many other choice plants. 

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Jim, like many gardeners, was very generous and he gave me a division from this plant which grew not very successfully in our garden for many years. To try and retain this heritage specimen we lifted and potted it this winter and I hope can grow it on and find a spot where it can thrive.

We have been more successful with the true-breeding seed strains raised by Elizabeth Strangman at Washfield, and this one, 'Queen of the Night', closely compares with 'Ballard's Black'.

It was especially delightful to meet with Liz again at the Easter Kent AGS Show at Sutton Valence just a week ago, and also with Kemal Mehdi who came with her. Kemal initiated a hellebore breeding programme at Hadlow College as a teaching tool in the horticultural courses, and the Kent Hardy Plant Society had a memorable meeting there many years ago, guided by Liz and Kemal and by Graham Gough, who then worked with Liz at Washfield.

The chance seedling that Liz named 'Pamina', with apricot flushed flowers (this is a seedling from it in our garden), has led on to some of the most strikingly coloured modern-day hellebores raised by growers such as Thierry & Sandrine Delabroye in France (

And probably also to this superb and vigorous hellebore that came from the breeding programme at Hadlow College, picking up on the picotee-forms that Elizabeth Strangman was also first to introduce and breed.

Elizabeth Strangman's book on hellebores, written with Graham Rice, is the best source of information and photographs of the hybrid strains and plants raised at Washfield, and an inspiration to follow in her footsteps.

(... to be continued)

In the picture above is a good yellow hellebore, and these like white forms are amongst the showiest in the garden. Unfortunately when many different plants are grown together the tendency is for self-sown seedlings to revert back (genetically) to rather muddy purples and pinks which don't stand out in the same way, and this is the primary value of the breeding work that the earlier growers, Helen Ballard, Eric Smith and Jim Archibald, and Elizabeth Strangman, carried out. They set the scene for the proliferation of hellebore breeding that has occurred since, but which could be said to sometimes take the genus too far away from its natural charm and wild forms. Horticultural selection tends to become a commercial selection driven by novelty (and quite often vulgarity), and it is valuable to stand back and ask questions more objectively about the long term garden value of plants. (This is a dilemma for the nurseryman who makes a living from selling plants, and emphasises the importance of observing and describing plants in a garden setting over time, as well as natural species in the wild, from which the garden derives). Having said this any gardener worth his salt is driven by the search for novelty because therein is the basis of a garden. That novelty may be in discovering and growing wild species - which the AGS celebrates in particular - but also inevitably the novelty that arises in the garden (and by extension, in horticulture).

This yellow hellebore is one we obtained at a Snowdrop and Hellebore day a good few years ago organised by the Kent Hardy Plant Society at Goodnestone Park Garden near to Canterbury. It came from Twelve Nunns Nursery, and the origins of their breeding work with hellebores is very nicely described by Val Bourne in this article from 2011: These lines from Val's article may resonate with many readers: 'As soon as I arrive, Hugh admits that he “prefers talking to plants more than people”. It is as a result of this diffidence that his remarkable contribution to hellebore breeding has never been fully recognised.' 

The story she relates is not so very different to what I am writing here, and emphasises how growing plants has aspects both private and public which can carry very different perspectives. And especially the way that our gardens are really more influenced by the detail and origins of plants than by commerce, and often by the individuals we know more than the wider horticultural world.

This picture in our garden shows a mix of yellow and pink hellebores that were selected out from hundreds grown from seed because of stronger clearer colours and good habit. The yellow in the foreground in particular has those rounded flowers that appealed so much to Helen Ballard and Elizabeth Strangman. We try to stop these self-seeding by removing the flowering shoots as they go over, marking just a few to collect seed from. So far we haven't selectively crossed between plants in the way that they did, but in the long term this is the only way to maintain true-breeding colour forms. We also grow these plants because of the scene they make in the garden and because we open the garden for charity, so here also are those those two aspects of nursery and garden competing with each other (and yet essentially they are complementary and each influences the other).

Another less well known breeder of hellebores is Lorna Jones - - who works with the genus in a similar way to Elizabeth Strangman, on a smaller and more artistic scale than many other growers. These two plants, a good clear pink and free-flowering purple form with small flowers, came from her nursery.

The latter is especially interesting because it takes a different path in breeding from the past, working with some of the smaller flowered forms.

It is hard though to resist growing some of the more dramatic horticultural selections such as this dusky double (the camera pulls out more of a purple cast than is visible in the garden). And these double forms of hellebores - morphologically similar to those found in related genera such as Anemone, Ranunculus, Hepatica, Eranthis, and Adonis - have huge horticultural appeal.

So far I have not mentioned the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, because in fact this has never been very successful in our garden despite being one of the most showy of all species. Its influence is far more evident in the various hybrids derived from it when crossed with H. argutifolius, H. lividus and H. x sternii, a group of plants rather different from the H. x hybridus forms, and (because they are sterile) extremely long flowering and free from self-seeding. There are many selections now, multiplied by micropropagation and not always so hardy when derived from H. lividus with more colourful flowers and well marked foliage, but they are undeniably striking garden plants.

A more complex hybrid is H. 'Anna's Red', named for Anna Pavord by RD Plants (Rodney Davey), which has become hugely successful commercially but again is sterile and so in the long run only possible to maintain by vegetative (micro) propagation.

And then this, H. 'Madame Lemonnier', a chance hybrid between H. niger and H. x hybridus, that arose in France and is very hard to ignore! Gardens have a tendency to evolve in their own particular way.

Given time and ingenuity all sorts of curious hybrids can be raised between different species and probably the oddest of all is H. 'Briar Rose', a combination of H. niger and the very rarely grown H. vesicarius (a summer dormant hellebore from southern Turkey and northern Syria). This is a flower of this hybrid on a plant Don Palmer brought along to our meeting discussing hellebores in Kent in February. It is highly unlikely to ever prove a worthwhile garden plant and takes hellebore breeding to rather of an extreme - in the inimitable words of the great plantsman Tony Hall, quoted in 'Hellebores - A Comprehensive Guide' by C. Colston Burrell & Judith Knott Tyler, "--- 'Briar Rose' has all the charm of a boil on Madonna's bum. ---". 

From a gardener's perspective this takes us back to the real value of hellebores in the garden setting; how they combine and integrate with other woodland plants. We grow them in various places including with snowdrops and later flowering woodland species under rows of dwarf apples planted nearly 40 years ago by my father when we started the garden. In this series of views taken from February through to nearly May, hellebores contribute to the flowering of the scene throughout

Elsewhere under larger trees they associate beautifully with Anemone nemorosa and celandine and other woodlanders to make that tapestry of foliage and flower which is the real delight of the spring garden.

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