New plants

Hellebores – keeping up with the changes

Rodney Davey Marbled Group

Hellebore (Rodney Davey Marbled Group) ‘Molly’s White’

It’s hard to imagine a winter garden without hellebores now, though their popularity has really only taken off in the last decade or so. This is partly because in the past it was difficult to buy named hybrids, with many plants being raised from the seeds of either deliberate or natural crosses that often had to be seen in flower if you wanted to know what they looked like. Vegetative propagation by division was a slow process that made it hard to produce enough plants of a particular variety for mass sales so named varieties were hard to find and plants were often sold as a Helleborus orientalis mix or as part of a group. Even when they did come with a name, which was often descriptive, the flowers could be quite variable.

Happily, developments in breeding techniques allowed for new crosses to be made and then improvements in micro propagation, or tissue culture, techniques (where tiny portions from the growing tips of plants are rooted in a gel) made it much easier and faster to produce large quantities of a specific selection. Now we have a wealth of choice, and some new names in Helleborus x hybridus and H. x ericsmithii.

There have been some very successful breeders (Helen Ballard, Eric Smith, Elizabeth Strangman, Ashwood Nurseries and Hugh and Liz Nunn who bred the Harvington hellebores) who have developed innovations in hellebores such as double flowers and an increased colour range but arguably one of the most significant groups of hellebores to be introduced in recent years is the Rodney Davey Marbled Group, seen in the pictures below.

As you can see in the first picture, the handsome leaves have very distinctive marbelling which helps them to look good all year round. I’ve grown quite a few of this group and have found them to be less prone than some varieties to the fungal disease black spot that often spoils hellebore leaves during the summer. The first of the series, ‘Anna’s Red’ (on the left, above) broke new ground with its long stems and the great mass of large, dark red flowers that are held well above the foliage. This means that unless the leaves are looking blackened and tatty, you can leave them on the plant as flowering gets underway, rather than taking them all off as is often recommended and the flowers won’t be hidden. The spectacular display is the equal of any summer-flowering perennial and it is one of the longest flowering hellebores I’ve ever come across. It can easily come into full bloom in late summer or autumn and carry on into the following spring. The stems branch and produce new flowers constantly, so don’t be tempted to cut them off when flowers start to go over, just dead head if you feel you need to. You might not, because, as with all hellebores, the sepals hold their shape and some of their colour for many weeks after the stamen and nectaries have gone.

It apparently took Rodney Davey 12 years to breed ‘Anna’s Red’, but this first variety seemed to open the floodgates because soon afterwards we got ‘Pippa’s Purple’ (on the right, above). In my experience this can’t quite match the exuberance and flower-power of ‘Anna’s Red’, but it’s a good variety. More recently around half a dozen new cultivars in the series have been introduced, including ‘Sally’s Shell’, in the first two pictures below, ‘Moondance’, top right, ‘Molly’s White’, bottom left and ‘Dorothy’s Dawn’, bottom right. Robust growth, interesting leaves and an ability to produce an abundance of gorgeous (and often outward facing) flowers typifies the whole series and makes them a joy to grow.

The Hellebore Gold Collection

I’ve known and admired the Rodney Davey Marbled Group hellebores for a number of years now and there haven’t been many to rival the impact they have – until the Hellebore Gold Collection, bred in Germany, arrived on the scene. The first two I grew, in 2016, were ‘Anja Oudolf’ on the left, above, and ‘Lily’, on the right.

‘Madame Lemonier’, ‘Pink Frost’, ‘Camelot’, ‘Carlotta’, Ice N’ Roses ‘Rosado’

The HGC varieties have some similarities to the Rodney Davey varieties in that they’re robust plants that produce a lot of flowers. In the Gold Collection, though, the flowers are even more outward facing so you can see the beautiful centres. A nodding hellebore head can be very charming, especially when it has pretty veining on the back of the sepals as many of them do, but you do miss seeing the striking interior of the bloom and outward facing flowers are seen as something very desirable by breeders. Some of the HGC varieties, such as ‘Madame Lemonier’ top left, above, have huge blooms and long, branching stems that hold them well above the leaves. They are not shy and retiring plants, the blooms are shown off. The colours are strong, too, and there are some unusual combinations that bring something very fresh to the hellebore range.

In another similarity to the Rodney Davey varieties, the HGC plants can start flowering in autumn and carry on through winter and into early spring, so you get months of colour. There are very few plants that can produce this sort of impact at that time of the year.

Winter Jewels Series

I wanted to mention these because they have stunning flowers, even though I haven’t found them as robust as either of the series I’ve mentioned above. Bred in Eugene, Oregon, I first came across the Winter Jewels series in this country in 2013 or 2014. ‘Cherry Blossom’, on the left, was a favourite, with its beautiful veined and picotee edged petals and the thick ruff of dark nectaries, although I also liked ‘Peppermint Ice’ which I believe is in both the photos on the right. Unfortunately the frilly flower in the bottom right picture was sent with a label for a variety called ‘Painted single’, which clearly had been stuck in the wrong pot. Looking at photos on the internet it seems that ‘Peppermint Ice’ is quite variable and can have flowers that look like both of these, so I guess they were the same variety, although I can’t be sure!

Incidentally, although hellebores usually flower in winter or autumn and winter, many of them will also produce a few flowers sporadically in summer. I’ve been told that they do this when they’re under stress because of dry or hot weather for instance, although I’m not convinced that’s true as I’ve often found they do it in cool and wet weather as well. I’ve also noticed that in my garden, where they’re in very crowded borders and are usually swamped by other plants during the summer, they have never flowered in summer, while at the trial garden where I used to work and where they grew in open, sunny beds and developed into sizeable plants very quickly, they often flowered in summer.

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