Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Confessions of a Hellebore Addict, Part II

In my last post, I mentioned that the hellebores you find for sale today are "not your mother's hellebores." That was meant in no way to disparage the older varieties of hellebores (usually Helleborus orientalis).  In fact, I want to start today's post by talking about some of these more common varieties that Jack and I have in our garden.

First, by way of background, you should know that none of our hellebores are mature plants.  I mention this because the pictures of plants I will show you do not do justice to the mature plant, which should be larger and more floriferous.  In fact, many of the plants you'll see in this post came from tiny "volunteer" hellebores passed along to me by other gardeners in 2012.  Many of these little guys got moved again in 2013 to their current location, so they probably have a couple more years until they reach their mature size.

 I call these "volunteers" because they came up from seeds dropped to the ground by the parent plant. For many of the orientalis varieties, when blooms are left to mature on the plant, the seeds will drop and produce enough hellebore babies to pass on to all your friends, your friends' friends, and so on.  But don't worry about invasiveness: the seeds don't spread around the garden.  They come up in a tidy little colony around and underneath the foliage of the mother plant. The seedlings are easy to transplant and have a good survival rate. They only ask for regular water until they get a root system established.  And you don't have to wait long for bloom. In my experience, plants will bloom in the second or third winter.

I think part of the fun part of getting some of these seedlings from a friend is that you never know what the offspring plants will look like. For instance, a shovelful of seedlings from a pink parent might produce plants with white, light pink, dark pink, or almost maroon flowers. 

The pink hellebore shown below is from a shovelful of seedlings transplanted from my sister's garden. 

While it is an attractive plant, this particular "pass-along" hellebore does have a few drawbacks compared with its more hybridized cousins.  For one thing, its flowers, although pretty, tend to be downward-facing and hidden under the foliage. You have to look carefully to find them. Secondly, its foliage can get more winter-burned than some of the other varieties that have a more leathery, substantial leaf.  If you look closely, you can see the winter burn on the foliage above the blooms. Most gardeners cut back the old, tattered foliage before the new foliage emerges in the spring. Some gardeners cut back all the old foliage when the plant starts to bloom to make the bloom more visible.  

Below is another transplanted seedling that exhibits a desirable trait bred into some of the newer hybrids.  Its blooms (although they are downward-facing) are held on a stalk above the foliage, which makes it a much showier plant.  Assuming this one reproduces from seed, it will be interesting to see if its offspring retain this desirable characteristic.

Another way that hellebores can differ is in the form of the flower. Most of the older hellebores have a single layer of petals (technically, sepals), like the plant above, while many of the newer varieties have a double row like this one . . .

and this one.

Another variation you'll find is that, unlike the blooms above which are more of a uniform color, sometimes the blooms will be freckled or picotee. The one shown below seems to have a little of both traits.

The instability of hellebores grown from seeds (even those grown by nurserymen under controlled conditions) sometimes leads to disappointment if you buy a hellebore that is not in bloom. I bought a hellebore from a reputable seller at one of the spring garden sales that was purportedly a double bloom but it turned out to not to be.  So, when possible, it is better to buy hellebores in bloom if you have your heart set a certain bloom color or characteristic.  However, since many of the more unusual varieties are often only available through catalogs, sometimes we have to be willing to take our chances. (Note that some hellebore hybrids are propogated by tissue culture, and this method should yield a plant that is true to the parent plant.)

In the next post, I'll show you my favorite hellebore from our garden.  It is a hellebore that many people familiar with only orientalis do not recognize as being a hellebore.

Deb Edwards TMG '12

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