May 29, 2002
Grower's Six Pack:
Helleborus garden hybrids — The Lenten rose

By Don MacWatt, Island Specialty Nursery

Of the several species of hellebores available on the market, the greatest interest has deservedly been claimed by Helleborus x hybridus, the Garden Hybrids, often mistakenly referred to as Helleborus orientalis or H. orientalis hybrids. These plants reflect the several species that have influenced the wide colour range from pure white through shades of cream and pink, red to purple and ultimately to blue/black. The range is further diversified with light to heavy spotting, red nectarines and the marginated rose shades in the selection H. ‘Picotee’.

     The species that has contributed to the development of H. x hybridus are natives of the Balkan region — particularly in the former Yugoslavia — and quite capable of withstanding moderate Canadian winters to Zone 4 or -34°C. Their native habitat ranges from woodland to open field, and they thrive in either location on the West Coast; nevertheless, they prefer a site that provides relief from the mid-day sun. In a well-drained location, with the addition of plenty of humus and an annual mulching, they will reward the gardener with a long flowering period, from mid-winter to early spring. Most growers cut the current years’ foliage off at ground level in November to reduce the possibility of fungal problems associated with winter weather, and to allow the flowers to emerge with pristine leaves. Although hellebores are relatively free from disease and pests, any foliage showing signs of fungus should be carefully removed and burned.

     We have enjoyed growing the many coloured seed strains from Europe, principally the Ashwood Strain, and have selected several for wholesale production. A high percentage of plants will come true but seedlings will vary, particularly where pollinating insects have access to stock plants. We attempt to self-pollinate the crop early in the season and collect seed from labelled colour strains. Some divisions are produced from particularly striking clones. Seedlings are raised 11 to 15 cm in size in the first year after germination and grow to flowering size in three to four years.

Of the many colour strains grown, the following are our most popular:

Picotee: Cream to rose sepals with darker red edging and dark red nectarines give the flower outstanding ornamental as well as cut flower value.

Purple/Black and Blue grey/Black: These two shades of intense dark colour are usually accompanied by purple foliage early in the season.

Cream/Yellow, with or without purple spots: A true buttercup yellow is still a rarity but the creamy yellow of our strain is still highly attractive and popular.

Pink, with or without dark red spots: The pinks provide a wide colour range from lightest, palest blush to deep pink with heavy red blotching.

White: The white palette runs from purest snow white to light cream with no spotting through to heavy red spotting.

Red, with or without spotting: This is a glowing shade that stands out from quite a distance in the landscape.

     Our efforts have been directed at selecting seed strains with rounded and evenly coloured sepals with erect flower heads. This process has been considerably easier with the Ashwood Strain from Britain that, in turn, has been developed over several flowering generations using some of the best European strains.

     According to one hellebore specialist, much is known about hellebores but much less is understood. Our efforts over the next few years will be to close this gap by some degree as we work to bulk up these and other colour strains and species for general distribution.