Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Life before Hellebores?

  There was once a time before hellebores. Well there was only Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose, and a few other oddities, mostly green and murky. There were some pink and spotty creations courtesy of Helen Ballard, a rather grand nurserywoman of the English midlands, available for what seemed like exceptionally large sums of money for a perennial. Ballard had actually done rather a good job, with what turned out to be limited genetic material, giving her creations cultivar names, and of course propagating them as one does with cultivars – dividing them. This was the 1980s.
            Hellebores do not form large clumps, and depend on seed to distribute themselves through the rocky woods of their (mostly) Balkan homeland. So there wasn’t very much to divide, which explains the price tags. Today’s hellebore passions are based on two things: one is new genes from the wild, hugely extending the range of colour and the other is the realisation that you can get very good plants from seed. So, forget the sharp knife, and the trauma to a plant which does put up with being dug and up and split like most other perennials. Forget the cultivar names too. “Do not propagate your cultivars from seed” is a mantra in the garden and nursery world. Turning the hellebore from an elite possession into an item of mass production required that this mantra be resisted, and so too that ego-driven urge of every nurseryman to name plants.
            I remember a report in (I think) the Hardy Plant Society journal in the very early 1990s reporting someone bringing back seed (or maybe plants) of a near-red hellebore from Slovenia, maybe newly independent, or maybe awaiting its short war of freedom against Milosovic. The place was not exactly off the beaten track, indeed it (as Yugoslavia – some countries change names more than plants do) was part of package-holiday land, yet my memory of the article had a tone of deering-do  plant intrepid hunterdom about it. Others followed. Piet and Anja Oudolf went further south, to Bosnia, remember people discussing imminent war, and came back with some plants with black flowers. Will McLewin, retired mathematics professor turned botanist/nurseryman, carried on travelling in the region, whenever peace and wherever landmines allowed. He took his van to places which were never part of package-holiday land, like Kosovo, usually basing himself in the increasingly prosperous Euro-spending Slovenia, with Stane Susnik, a television producer with a passion for gardening and his country’s rich, varied and beautiful flora.
            The results of all this travelling was a huge range of genetic diversity. Hellebores are easy to breed, if slow to germinate and grow. John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries and Roger Harvey have been particularly good breeders. The plants now come in a huge range of colours, with spotted and striped and picoteed variants. Devotees attend hellebore days and compete to buy the best-looking plants. Being seed-raised you cannot just buy a plant with a good name, you have to buy it in flower in order to know what you are getting. Or you can be patient and buy seed, and hope that your investment produces some good returns.
            In my current garden it seems that every hellebore seed which hits the ground grows. We have to weed them out. Which seems terrible. Three years ago I transplanted a load, and lined them out. The breeding is not very sophisticated (one nurseryman breeder once said to me – “who’s Mendel?”) so I had high hopes that there would not be too much genetic backsliding. Which indeed has turned out to be the case. Most are dark red (no blacks though – L ), which are the most vigorous, some lovely spotties (I LOVE spotty flowers), a decent number of picotees, some big whites and the occasional pale pink. So I either give them to friends or distribute them around the garden.
            Growing on your own hellebores from seed (if you have the space) is actually vital. The plants do not go on for ever. Rember these are not ever-marching-forward in steadily-spreading clumps, chop up and put bits in yogurt cartons for the church fête type perennials. Plants I bought from Ashwood 12 years ago are now very much declining, to some extent their seedlings replacing them, but some replanting is now necessary.
            From the Balkans to the World. I have always wondered whether we would grow them if they flowered in June. Probably not… or well no-one would have bothered sleeping in vans by roadsides in Bosnia in order to gather their seed. But for the end of winter their dusky, sometimes rather mournful, sophisticated shades are perfect.


The Intercontinental Gardener said...

This brings back so many memories; even in Sweden, Hellebores were the summit of sophistication in the 90s. So much has happened since then, but they remain favorites of mine and many others, too. I wonder about their lifespan, though; in Sweden, I found a couple of old crowns with root under a steelwire hard layer of ground elder roots, while restoring one of the flowerbeds. I didn't have much hope about them coming back, but after being planted in good soil, some deep wine red buds emerged the next spring. The lady whose father had built our house in 1935 (her family sold it in 1950s) told me the he had loved just those Hellebores, they had been the absolute jewel of his garden (how and where he got them is unclear). So I always thought Hellebores were like their relatives Peonies, indestructible... A long comment, but I just thought this is very interesting.

Marianne said...

Would we grow them if they flowered in June? Yes, indeed - would we? Yet so thankful for them here at the end of March. Excellent article Noel - enjoy your writing tremendously.