Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Hellebore troubles

Hellebores can make such a huge impact as they flower so much earlier than anything else. Try cutting them though and they hang their heads so limply as to put you off ever trying again. The only way to cut them is to float them in water as in the picture above.

They are easy enough but I find that many of ours are dying out. Given my interest in long-term plant performance I have been monitoring this and discussing it with other gardeners. The consensus is that from about ten years onwards many do go into a decline. This is not surprising as they seed (or can do) so extensively which suggests something which is not going to be with us for ever. So, all the plants I paid such good money for from Ashwood Nurseries and Wendy Perry all those years ago are now pretty well vanished. They initially seeded well – I dug a load up and planted them out, leaving many others to grow in the bed.

The seedlings I have left, i.e. next to their parents, have never really taken off. Despite it looking like initially they would smother everything else, they have never gotten that big and are now beginning to die too. All I can think is that they cannot cope with the competition of the roots of the overgrown hedge behind them. The very best ones are right up the top where the hedge is further back. Elsewhere in the garden we have a few magnificent plants, but always well away from shade or tree roots.

So, a bit of a crisis for something that was always such a feature of the garden in late winter. The seedlings I had dug up seven or so years ago have done well, breeding relatively true from seed, so we have had some good plants to move elsewhere or give away. It was interesting to note however the difference in vigour and how this was linked to flower colour (genes on the same chromosome?). I had set out the seedlings in order of size in a nursery bed, and all the largest ones turned out to be red, which actually is the least interesting colour of all. The picotees seem particularly lacking in umph. In looking at this lot the other day, I realise that there is only one in the nursery bed left which was worth doing anything with, a very spotty white. So I divided it, feeling as if I was taking the plant's life in my hands as they do not divide well, and you do end up doing terrible damage to them, crushing flowers and leaves as you do so. Hopefully the rather miserable looking divisions with a few leaves sticking out at odd angles will take. The roots are most active in the late winter, when they flower, so this is the best time to carry out this perilous operation.

These seedlings had originally been collected from around good plants, the seeds being so heavy that you can be pretty sure which plant a seedling has come from. I tried to find some more around good ones this year, but it is a struggle, and even when very small, the seedlings have very long roots and can be difficult to extricate from the ground.

I shall have to try to save seed again this year, but this is not easy, because as soon as it is ripe it seems to hurl itself out of the seed pods. I have tried tying little muslin bags (thanks to eBay I now have a whole packet of these) around the maturing pods but they are actually too small – I need the next size up.

Going to buy expensive seed from Ashwood or Jelitto or somebody is going to feel like a defeat, let alone having to take out a mortgage to buy new plants. So we shall have to develop a Hellebore Conservation Action Plan.


Rachel the Gardener said...

Noel, I think you are absolutely right in your observation about the most vigorous plants being the dullest colours, and I think this is directly related to plant breeders working on getting more "interesting" colours at the expense of vigour.

(Much in the same way that, for a long time, Rose breeders forgot about the scent in their quest for Perfect Petals.)

So there are some absolutely gorgeous Hellebores to be bought, but they can all be out-competed by "commoner" seedlings.

In my experience, the only way is to keep the surrounding area completely free of all seedlings, and keep them as individual plants, slightly seperated from each other (although secretly I love the mad jumble of many colours which you get if you allow the seedlings - or some of them - to live).

Grumpy Hobbit said...

I agree with your comments and those of Rachel above - in particular Picotees and Doubles are distinctly lacking in vigour, and perhaps therefore of questionable garden worthiness. And of course, the doubles have had the valuable nectaries bred out of them, so not so good for early season insects. We've just been thinking the same thing about older original clumps dying out in one long bed, but we do have a few nice replacements coming on. Rather like snowdrops, I sometimes think that the best effects are from masses - even if fairly ordinary flowers. A final point I've wondered about, since we (and to a lesser extent you) garden in high rainfall areas, might some trace mineral exhaustion explain why some seeding perennials like this fail to perform so well after a certain length of time in one area of the garden? We've just begun to supplement beds with dried seaweed in addition to our stock wood ash from the stoves, which is historically the only supplemental nutrition used to supplement natural leaf litter.

Anne Wareham said...

Do you chop the leaves off, Noel? Almost universally recommended but I like to see them flowering with their leaves so sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. I have wondered if it reduces their vigour.

Jane said...

So many questions to think about. Would removing flowers as early as reasonable, thus preventing expenditure of energy into seed help? Are you removing leaves in January to try and break black spot cycle? The first suggestion would prevent prolific seeding which again means blackspot gets fully established in tiny leaves all over the place. I have seen over-nurtured hellebores in pots in nurseries look distinctly worse this year than last - a yellowish, miserable look that suggests virus to me, as well as the black spot of course.

There is a problem about mass growing of hellebores in my view. They don't seem right for it, despite the heavy seeding, maybe they're supposed to roll down hills or rocks to get away from the parent. Anyway they mix up, go a horrible murrey colour, droop sadly and lose all distinction. The thing about snowdrops is that they're small, white spears which last a short time, so they look good massed.

So perhaps the thing is not to try them as a major natural landscape component. They need too much intervention to keep healthy

Stefanie said...

Hi Noel,
I know your post isn't so much concerned with hellebores as cut flowers, but... Have you tried splitting the ends of the stalks with a needle for a few centimetres? Two or three such slits per stem should do - it works for me. (Less necessary perhaps but also helpful in cyclamen, by the way.)

Nick said...

Hi Noel. I collect the seed pods before they open and put them some where safe to open and ripen. Once the seed has developed it does not need to be on the plant to ripen fully. I did that last year and have two large stacking trays packed full of seedlings. I think many plants have reasonable vigour for many years but the overbred and very expensive ones I no longer buy as they do not seem to last. The other factor as you have said is shading and root competition-they grow much better with a good root run.

Anonymous said...

hi Noel
thank you for the concerning post.
makes one wish to keep one's wallet closed. we need some solid garden history of the new strains.
(on this side of the atlantic, i wonder if judith knott tyler and cole burrell have contributed to the longevity discussion?)
~ abigail higgins

Garden Gate said...

Hi Noel,
Have you tried Sarah Raven's tip (whom I think you are very hard on!) for arranging hellebores? Works for me:-

"When you’re selecting which hellebore to pick, look for stems with at least one seed pod beginning to form. These have a little more lignin in the cell walls than those newly emerged and are likely to last better in a vase. Once cut, all hellebores should have their stem ends seared in boiling water for 20 seconds to help them last. Sear each stem, then put into cold water and store in the cold and dark for an hour or two before arranging them".

I have many hellebores in the garden some bought as plants and some from seedlings and have not noticed any loss of vigour, yet,. have to say none are older than nine years when we moved here and none have been divided. Have I deterioration to look forward to?

Garden gate. said...

Hi Noel,
Here is a tip for arranging hellebores gleaned from Sarah Raven - whom I think you are very hard on! It works for me:-

"When you’re selecting which hellebore to pick, look for stems with at least one seed pod beginning to form. These have a little more lignin in the cell walls than those newly emerged and are likely to last better in a vase. Once cut, all hellebores should have their stem ends seared in boiling water for 20 seconds to help them last. Sear each stem, then put into cold water and store in the cold and dark for an hour or two before arranging them."

I have many hellebores in the garden and they are a delight in the spring. I haven't noticed any loss of vigour yet but the oldest are under ten years. They are a mixture of bought plants and self sown seedlings. Hope I haven't got deterioration to look forward to!