Gardening Unplugged - Hellebores: History, Breeding, and New Varieties

Gardening Unplugged - Hellebores: History, Breeding, and New Varieties

w/ Tony Avent

By Published March 28, 2023

Shop for Helleborus at Plant Delights Nursery

In this edition of Gardening Unplugged, Tony takes guests on a walk around the garden and discusses the fascinating history of hellebores and how far the breeding of hellebores has advanced in recent years. Gardening Unplugged is our in-house series of informal garden chats that are always free to attend during any of our Open Nursery and Garden Days at Plant Delights Nursery at Juniper Level Botanic Gardens.

Hellebores that Tony mentions in this video:

  • Helleborus x hybridus
  • Helleborus niger
  • Helleborus croaticus
  • Helleborus viridis
  • Helleborus purpurascens
  • Helleborus lividus
  • Helleborus x iburgensis
  • Helleborus gladorfensis
  • Helleborus x ericsmithii
  • Helleborus x ballardiae
  • Helleborus multifidus
  • Helleborus argutifolius
  • Helleborus x nigercors
  • Helleborus x sternii


Video Transcription

Okay, all right, we'll go ahead and get started. I appreciate everybody joining us for our little hellebore Gardening Unplugged chat today. So, how many people grow hellebores? Has most everybody tried them? All right, so we'll talk a little bit about the different ones and where they come from where they've gone.

Has anybody ever seen them in the wild? Okay, it's pretty cool to see them in the wild. In the wild, this is how they look. This is a wild collected hellebore. That's about as good as they ever look in the wild. Some might have a tiny bit of purple in them but there's nothing like what we know of as the Helleborus hybridus group. This represents about 70 years’ worth of breeding, but this is where everybody started from and they would get just a tiny bit of purple and then self it, and self it, and self it. And that's how we got to some of the amazing plants you see today. Let me pass that around if somebody wants to actually see what wild hellebores look like.

Hellebores are from primarily the Balkan region. That's really where the peak of hellebores [are] from: Hungary, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia. And there, they grow in woodlands but they also grow out a lot in prairies. It's really fascinating the range of where you see hellebores in the wild. What was really neat is to see them growing in the wild in some areas with things like epimediums, some things we know. Actually, what was very interesting to me, they grow with blue fescue, if any of you [have] ever grown that, that grows in the wild. They grow with a lot of ferns and quite a few things that we grow.

In terms of hellebores, there are basically two groups; the hellebores with above ground stems, and we'll look at those and there's only a few of those, and then the hellebores with below ground stems. And the below ground stems are what we know of as rhizomes. That's the most common of the groups. Mainly what we know today, in the non-stemmed ones, you have one group which comprises almost every species which would be croaticus, viridus, or true orientalis, purpurascens, etc. Those have all been interbred to produce what we call Helleborus hybridus, which is what you'll see primarily today. The outlier of the group, the sort of the white sheep of the family, is Helleborus niger. Most of the others bloom February, that one blooms November-December and over the years, people had tried and nobody had been able to be successful Crossing this group with the Helleborus niger, the out group. And the last few years that has actually changed. The cool thing about that is Helleborus niger faces out, all the other hellebores face down. And that is to prevent... because they're in an area that snows really heavily, and having your face up in the snow is probably not a good way to get pollinated, to have seed, to live long and prosper, that's why they hang down. So as breeders, we've had to cross, and cross, and cross, and raise them up a little bit each time to get them back now where they actually face out. So, a lot of the new modern ones we find actually do look out where you don't have to raise the flowers up. So, let's take a walk and we'll look at some in the garden.

Helleborus croaticus - A Croatian Native

This is Helleborus croaticus from Croatia. Very cute little things, small flowers got a little bit of purple and again, nothing like the flashy hybrids, but it's this really low dense plant. This is one of the few species hellebores we actually offer because I think that it's pretty special. Not been used a lot in breeding, but I think this has a lot of potential so that's what you would see in the wild if you actually found one of those in Croatia.

Now this is what we know as Helleborus hybridus. you can see how far that has come from the original species. The breeders now can pretty much put any color on there. There's a few colors they haven't managed yet, but they'll be coming soon. So, it really was getting all the yellow ones, you'll see some yellows a little later, came from Helleborus viridis. All the purple came from Helleborus purpurascens because that had a little bit of purple. All of the doubles which you see in a lot of them now came from one population found by a friend of ours, Elizabeth Strangman, and she's an English hellebore breeder and she found one population in the wild that actually had double flowers and I've been lucky enough to visit that population. She got a couple of seed from that, grew it out, those had doubles and every double has originated from that one find. Without that, we might not have double hellebores today.

"Helleborus hybridus represents about 70 years' worth of breeding"

Hellebores in the garden prefer conditions like this. This is actually west-facing sun. They do not flower as well in deep shade, light shade they're okay, but sort of that half and half is where they really thrive. So, this is what you would get on the fifth year after you plant. So, it's one of those plants they get a little better each year. Most of the Helleborus hybridus are evergreen whereas some of the species are actually deciduous, they will completely disappear in the wintertime. So, if you get those and they disappear, don't absolutely go nuts about that.

"Hellbores do not come true from seed"

Now, hellebores reproduce from seed. Let's see if I can find one just getting close to seeding, we may be a little early on that one. They form the seed right in the middle so where the flowers are, where the flower parts are, is where the seed will be. Hellebores do not come true from seed. S,o when you plant seed of this, you're going to get a what's near it that the bees have crossed. And then you're going to get its father, it's grandfather, its grandmother, its great grandmother, and you're going to go all the way back so you're going to get generally a muddy mess. So, what you can do is plant several together that are similar color then your offspring are going to have a much higher rate of coming close to the color that you want. But if you put a purple one by a yellow one, a purple by a white one, you got mud and it's not going to be attractive and so you need to have it far enough where the bees are going to be less likely to fly. What does that mean? I mean bees can fly a long ways. We typically here, when we're isolating, we will do maybe 50 to 100 feet. It's not going to prevent bees from going to there, but it will reduce the chance of those.

Helleborus lividus - The Only Hellebore With Naturally Mottled Foliage

Now one of the most interesting hellebores is this plant right here, this is a stemmed hellebore, and we know that because it has a stem. This is Helleborus lividus, this is the only hellebore with naturally mottled foliage, and this is a Spanish species. That's the only place this occurs. If you read the books from England, it says this is not winter hardy because this is a hellebore that must have lots of summer heat to develop sugars to make it through the winter. It's absolutely fine here. The cool thing about H. lividus number one, if it wasn't so hot today it's not actually dry it's just not used to the sun, the flowers are pretty much facing out and it transmits this beautiful silver foliage to the hybrids. So, there are a number of hybrids. Now generally anything that's a complex hybrid with this is probably going to be sterile. First generations are fertile but anything past that they're all sterile and they all have this, so you've got a group now called the H. iburgensis hybrids. So, when you look in the nursery or look in the catalog, you'll see Helleborus x iburgensis. That means it's a cross with this and it's sterile and it has cool mottled foliage. So, this was a major breakthrough plant when people started using this to breed with.

Q: Can you propagate hellebores by cuttings?

A: Can you propagate by cuttings um... yes, because in most hellebores when you divide the plant that's what you've done is you've just taken cuttings, because the stem runs underground so yes you can do that. Now on this one you actually can root these stems, they're not easy to do, but you can do that. So yes, it's not generally done most everybody uses seed and then some people use divisions. If you're going to divide it, you do not want to divide it in Spring. If you do, your hellebore will be dead. You need to divide it in fall or winter, that is the only times you want to be dividing hellebores, early fall all the way up through the wintertime when they're dormant.

Helleborus gladorfensis - A Major Breakthrough in Hellebore Breeding

So, one of the really neat things that also happened is, I mentioned the hellebore group of hybridus and then niger. They have never been able to be crossed until a few years ago and some breeders in Germany did that and this is what they call Helleborus gladorfensis. That's because they were first made in the town of Glandorf. See, Latin's really not complicated once you learn to think. These are amazing. They're completely sterile they have the darkest foliage of any, almost a black green, and the flowers face out and these are called the 'Ice n' Roses' Series. So, you'll see 'Ice n' Roses,' 'Red Ice n' Roses,' 'Pink Ice n' Roses,' white, and then now they've got a bunch more. So that was really a major breakthrough on the hellebores.

And more of the just classic hybridus that we see. So, if you don't want hellebores to breed in your garden and reseed, once they go in and say a month after they finish flowering, just cut the flower stems off. Throw them away, no seeding. Because hellebores can get particularly… after several years of being allowed to seed, they can take over a fairly large area of your garden and they're not particularly easy to dig out. They have very intense contractile roots that hold them in. I mean you really need to get a big grubbing hoe or a serious shovel to get them out, so a little bit of seeding is fine in the right area. If you live near a nature park or natural area, stay away from the fertile ones because they will actually reseed into those areas, and we certainly don't need that.

See, you can see some of the older hybrids, they still have the flowers facing down whereas anything that's newer, we're selecting for more out-facing flowers. Again, we don't want the flowers really up because if we had a real winter, like maybe tomorrow, that would not be good. The flowers then tend not to go to seed but you can see the different array of colors as we walk through.

So here I mentioned the yellows, this was really an amazing breakthrough to be able to have good rich yellows and not just single yellows, but double yellows.

So, most of… when you buy hellebores, especially helleborus hybrids, a lot of those are sold as seed strains so when you see names like 'Rose Quartz,' 'Painted Ladies,' 'Wedding Dance,' those are all hand-crossed every single because those are generally sold without flowers. You want to be sure those have a 95 percent plus rate of being what you actually say they are. So, breeders keep big stock plants and every year they go in and make tens of thousands of hand crosses and that's where those come from. Those are not something that just happens, those are not something that somebody goes out and just gathers seed out of the garden, and that's why those are more expensive. Many times, the seed for those will cost anywhere from three to five dollars per seed. So, there's a lot of work to make it look like there was no work that went into it.

So, we looked at Helleborus lividus earlier, with the nice, speckled leaves, this is one of those hybrids. This is the H. iburgensis, made in Iberg, and you can see how nice that beautiful foliage is with the pattern of silver on it. there's actually leaves on one right there that, a little further along the foliage, is incredible. I would grow this one if it never flowered. Also, because it has Helleborus niger, all the flowers face out and there's no seed.

So, to me… yeah?

Q: So, this one doesn’t seed?

A: This one doesn't cross with anything else.

Q: So, you could put that with some of the purple ones and you wouldn’t get the mud?

A: No, this this one this will never produce anything.. this is a mule.

Q: So the plant will just keep getting bigger, it will not be putting out babies?

A: It will not be putting out babies. You'll have one plant forever. So, these would have been put in 2019 so this is now year four for these and they just get better and more flowers each year and because they don't produce seed, they just continue to produce flowers for a much longer period.

So, hellebores typically… you know, again, I mentioned niger, that can start as early as November but that's generally a November-December whereas the hybridus are generally late February. But these that have some hybridus in them, and niger, start blooming generally late January early February. So, you can really expand the seasons with many of these different series of hellebores, okay. And again, you can just see how far these have come from that original double. It's just really extraordinary to see the diversity.

See if I can pick a few and we'll just… you can just see some of the incredible diversity that the breeders have been able to get to the colors. Just every year they just get better and better so I tell people if you've got 10-year-old, 15-year-old hellebores, there's no way they can hold a candle to these. The advances every 5 to 10 years is just quite remarkable. I can go through populations that I saw back in the 70s and I thought back then, “these are great”, and I look at them now and there's not a thing in there I’d keep. The advances are just so amazing.

And again, you just see the… see if I can pick one here. The range of colors and the patterns are just absolutely stunning. Why don’t you all pass these flowers around.

Q: Now are those the seed ones?

A: These are all seed ones, these are all hybridus. Now normally, I said that the hybrids are sold without flowering them. They're sold by the strain name. We actually do a lot of our own where we isolate them in the garden, and we actually hold them for a second year. So, we have two-year-olds so we can actually flower them and sell them in flower. So up in the… at Greenhouse 7, that's some of our two-year-olds that are actually in bloom so you can see exactly what you're getting as opposed to buying a name and hoping there's a 95 chance it's exactly right.

The yellows are getting better every year. We've got some really amazing, not just pure yellows, but yellows now with some real nice spotting. If I can… yeah, not one of the better ones. We've got much better than that now so every year we go in and we evaluate, and we will dig out a lot of these clumps and replace them with something better. So, we're every year we're upgrading our strains so there's no hellebores that have been here more than probably seven, eight years because they're just… they're just not up to the new standards.

So, here's some more of the gladorfensis I showed you in the back. I showed you the red one, this is the white one and, because it's got the niger in there, it was blooming in January, so it's almost finished now where many of the hybridus are just getting started. So, this is niger crossed with hybridus, so this is this is almost over with now, you get many 80 degree days they go pretty quick. This was just incredible last week, this was 'Ice n' Roses Red,' just look at the number of flowers on that. And this is, again, one of those sterile hybrids. I've got some photos from last week and it was beyond compare.

Now I mentioned the Helleborus lividus, the one from Spain, now that's actually been used to breed this. And this was crossed with another stemmed hellebores called Helleborus argutifolius from Corsica and so that created a plant called Helleborus sternii which has the nice, mottled foliage but it's up on a stem. Not the most hardies thing. If it goes below 10 degrees, it will die to the ground, but this has been used to now cross with niger to get some really nice silver veined foliage hellebores. You see things called Helleborus ericsmithii and Helleborus ballardiae and that has either argutifolius or lividus in the background of those.

Any questions? I know we've talked a lot about helleborus. Anything we haven’t… they like generally dry soils. The the one thing they don't like is wet soils. They'll take clay, they'll take sand, they do not like wet.

Any questions?

Q: What type of soil do they like?

A: Acidic, alkaline, they're native, generally, in sort of a neutral pH. A lot of books say they need extra lime, but I don't find they do. They don't dislike it, but generally it's right at that neutral to slightly alkaline. There are really some amazing species. If you walk over into the far area and way far on the sunny side, up in the little picnic area, you’ll see one called Helleborus multifidus. That has the narrowest leaves of any. The leaves are that thin. It's like almost pencil lead and those are fascinating. I don't care if they flower because the flowers are just nothing but the foliage, when you see them in the wild, you don't even recognize them as a hellebore and those are from Herzegovina is where the really neat ones are. So, we had to do some traveling into some pretty remote areas to find those but man, when you do it's pretty extraordinary. Now the breeders thought, “well, I can cross that and get good flowers and keep that narrow foliage,” well that doesn't work. You've either got good flowers or narrow foliage. The two just… I just don't know that we'll ever see those two together. The genes are so hard to get to sort out at that point. Yes?

Q: Which ones did you say were sterile?

A: Okay any of the Helleborus iburgensis, H. gladorfensis, H. ericsmithii, H. nigercors, or H. ballardiae. Basically, anything but hybridus. Hybridus are the fertile ones. Almost everything else is going to be sterile except some of the species but… other questions?

Q: Fertilizers?

A: Fertilizers, okay. Everything in our garden, we use all organic. I don't ever recommend a chemical fertilizer on anything because the whole idea is we have to get away from the idea that we're fertilizing plants. You never, ever, ever fertilize a plant in the ground. You feed the microbes. The microbes feed the plants. All you care about are the microbes in the soil. Those are the things you can't see; those are the things that there are millions in every teaspoon that make the soil work. You keep them happy; they'll keep the plants happy. You kill them by putting out fast release fertilizers then the plants aren't happy. So, any good organic fertilizer, fantastic. Compost, great thing. Others?

Q: How high should you plant them? Is there anything special?

A: Plant them just like you do anything else. You don't want them up above the ground, you want them right even with the ground. Yeah just plant them the same way you would do everything else except the tomato. Tomatoes you can plant deep, they're fine. A few things you can plant high, but not these. Just plant them like you do anything regularly. They need no special care, they're really quite easy in the garden.

Q: We have some planted on the side of our house and some of the leaves have, I think it's from the cold weather, they turned brown.

A: Great question, glad you asked that. So, a lot of people ask “when should I cut my hellebores back?” For appearance’s sake of the flowers, we wait until the flower gets color and it rises above the foliage. The reason we do that is those leaves, even though they get ugly and burned in the wintertime, keep the soil cool and they slow the hellebore down. This year, if we get a really bad cold, it's going to be a problem on a lot of plants, so the longer we can slow those hellebores down by leaving the old foliage, great. But we go in the minute that flower is above the foliage, you're not going to slow it down anymore, we go in and we cut all the old foliage off. Not required for the health of the plant, but it sure makes the flowers look a whole lot nicer and why are we growing them if it's not for the flowers? So generally, for us that's going to be first of February. Now I don't like to come again and cut them back in the fall, some people love to clean them up in the fall, that's no good because then again, you get some light in there and those things start popping way too early. It's a great question but yeah, the black you see, that's just winter… that's just winter damage. Just things falling on them, sticks falling on them from the trees, there's all kinds of stuff. They can get damaged; some get damaged more than others but doesn't bother the plant. Now what you do not want to do is, do not ever cut the foliage off during growing season. So, spring summer you cut the foliage off, you just killed your plant. It's evergreen for a reason. It is required to have foliage all year so the only way we get by with it it's only got four weeks before it shoots out new foliage in spring, so hellebores are growers in winter time. They grow in cool seasons. They are completely dormant in the summer. They'll still be green, but they are dormant, they are not growing. Great question.

Q: What makes hellebores deer resistant?

A: What makes them deer resistant; they're fairly toxic to deer so deer generally don't browse hellebores, which is great. It's chemicals inside that, I couldn't tell you which chemicals I'm not a chemist, but... where's our chemist? What chemical is it in hellebores they don't like? Is it helleborine? There's something in there that they don't like. That's the beauty of hellebores and yeah, that's why a lot of people grow them, the deer don't browse them. I mean, I'm not saying they'll never come in and take one nibble, but generally, one nibble in there like now let's find greener pastures. Yeah, I’ll go find the hosta!

Any other questions? I hope you'll please go walk through the gardens. There's a lot of hellebores all the way around, really a tremendous amount to see and I hope that gets you a little more excited about the genus. Thank you very much! Thank you, thank you.

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