Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hellebore Heaven

Hellebore Heaven

The best thing about February, other than my father’s having been born on Valentine’s Day, is that the hundreds of Helleborus species and hybrids in my collection come into bloom. If I had to name a favorite plant and flower, it would be one of these. I started growing and hybridizing them about 15 years ago, before many of the spectacular new varieties were available in the United States, scrounging plants and exchanging seeds from all over the world. I still have some of my original plants, and I probably should get rid of them, because they pale in comparison to some of my more recent acquisitions and many of my newer seedlings, and are probably hampering my efforts to improve certain strains by crossbreeding with them. Culling is the toughest part of plant breeding – I have an incredibly difficult time with consigning any healthy plant to the compost – but it’s also necessary when interbreeding can occur as readily as it does among the Hellebores. I promise myself that I’ll label some of the “dogs” (which are still beautiful, each in its own way) and donate them to plant sales this spring. Because it takes about 3 years to grow the plants from seed to bloom, I have tons of seedlings in cold frames this winter, in pots from 3 inches to 4 gallons, all waiting to be evaluated. Every year I tell myself not to save and plant seeds – there isn’t room – but every year I grow another couple of hundred. The new ones (planted last June) are just now breaking ground as the weather begins to open up. There’s so much information on varieties and growing techniques available online (and in the great recent book on the subject by Judith Knott Tyler and C. Colston Burrell) that I won’t try to reproduce any of that here. I have, however, learned a couple of interesting facts about growing hellebores in southeastern Virginia.

Hellebores will flower in the shade, but I find they grow and bloom much better with at least half a day of sun (preferably in the morning). The caulescent Hellebores (argutifolius, foetidus, lividus, and their hybrids) prefer as much sun as they can get. The healthiest of my H. x hybridus (descended from the clump-forming species) grow at the feet of rose bushes where they are exposed to full sun for about 9 months of the year, but shaded during the hottest part of the summer by the roses themselves and the Salvia guaranitica which runs rampant throughout the bed as well. H. niger, the “Christmas Rose”, usually doesn’t bloom here for Christmas, but for the last two years it’s arrived around New Year’s Day. These seem to do better here in large containers than in the ground (I heavily amend the soil to counteract the natural acidity of our heavy clay), and my favorite plant (supposedly) descends from a famous strain called “Potter’s Wheel”. Its blooms can reach five inches in diameter, and very often a second crop is produced in May or June. The only disappointment for me regarding this species is the difficulty I have in germinating and growing on the seed; my few plants produce large amounts, but it germinates poorly, and the resulting seedlings are usually so weak that they don’t survive our hot, humid summers. (Note added April 20, 2008: This year, for the first time, I have hundreds of healthy H. niger seedlings ready to transplant - a good lesson in persistence!)

Because of serious drainage issues (there isn’t much here), I’m growing many of my best plants in pots. Hellebores have done well for me in half barrels and large clay pots; I have been using fiberglass planters for larger plants as well, but I’ve found that these require lots of perforation to allow for enough drainage, and that the soil used in them needs to be highly amended. This year I’m experimenting with planting in “grow bags”, flexible containers sewn from heavy duty landscape fabric which hold anywhere from five to ten gallons of soil. They aren’t all that attractive, but my plan is to group them together and disguise the fabric with pine straw; their flexibility should allow them to be butted up together to simulate a raised bed. I discovered these when visiting a nursery in DC which was using them to hold containerized tree peonies (another member, along with Helleborus and Clematis, of the Ranunculus tribe.) The bags drain really well, even when filled with pure potting soil, but so far I’ve found only one source which will sell to retail customers, and their service hasn’t been great. I’m growing about 50 plants in bags this year, and I’m hoping this simplifies the container growing process. Even with thoughtful placement, careful watering, and the liberal use of perlite and granite grit as soil additives, two or three plants will develop crown rot every August when the air gets hot, humid, and still. It’s easy to spot, even from a distance – the usually glossy leaves take on a decidedly matte finish as the roots and stems decay, becoming unable to send any water or nourishment to the plant’s extremities. Usually death occurs within a matter of days, but sometimes I manage to salvage part of a plant by employing triage methods – washing all the soil from the roots, cutting away all of the rotten roots and rhizome, soaking the remainder in a fungicide, and repotting in fresh potting mix. I got lucky in this way with one of my few double varieties (these are much rarer and hard to get than the singles) last summer, and it has a few blooms now.

The success of tissue culture is a recent development in the world of hellebore breeding, and has already resulted in thousands of identical plants flooding the market through mass retail outlets. Part of the appeal of Hellebores for me has always been their elusiveness; you had to buy them in bloom to know exactly what you were getting, and still we have to travel great distances to visit growers of quality plants. Next Saturday I’m hoping to visit what I think of as “Hellebore Heaven” – Pine Knot Farms (run by Judith Knott Tyler, who co-wrote the aforementioned “bible” of Hellebores) in Clarksville, VA. They hold their “Hellebore Festival” for only two weekends late each winter, and it is a spectacular place to visit; acres and acres of woodlands filled with blooming plants in the dead of winter, not to mention hundreds of their hybrids for sale in full bloom in the nursery area.
Even Pine Knot has begun offering plants produced by tissue culture, including this gorgeous semi-double H. niger variety called “Double Fantasy”. I’m glad such rare plants are becoming widely available, and this may, in the end, help to cure my obsession with this genus. Once plants identical to those in my garden begin showing up at Walmart and Trader Joe’s, I suspect they’ll cease to hold the same cachet for me as in the past. I got over growing Phalaenopsis and Cattleya orchids for that reason (aided and abetted by a nasty scale infestation which claimed most of my collection). For now, however, I’m glad I have these spectacular plants to lure me into the garden on the very rare occasion when I’m home in February during daylight hours.

1 comment:

László said...

Very good the pictures, and excellent Helleborus prepared description.