In recent years hellebores have been transformed: they have come a long way since all we had were single-flowered forms in white, pinks and reds with unpredictable spotting. Now we have singles in every shade (except true blue), including white, almost black, uniformly speckled or splashed with darker markings, even striped; there are picotees, dark-eyed forms and intriguing colour melds, and an increasing range of anemone-centred forms and full doubles. Shapes now vary from beautifully and symmetrically rounded to dramatically star-shaped. There are exciting new interspecies crosses too, new ones every year. How did this come about?
The Hellebore Breeders
Hellebore anenome centred hybrid
Although hellebores have been bred for over 150 years, the earliest significant breeder was Helen Ballard (1909-1995) who travelled extensively to study and collect hellebores and from the 1960s onwards bred a superb range of stunning hellebores. She worked hard to introduce the first yellow and the darkest slate coloured Helleborus x hybridus. Many of our finest hellebores today have been bred from Ballard originals.
In 1949 Frederick Stern showed the cross of Helleborus argutifolius and Helleborus lividus and it was named after him; Helleborus x sternii (although he may not have been the first to identify, make or show the cross.) Around the same time Eric Smith and Jim Archibald bred some superb named varieties, Eric was highly regarded and Helleborus x nigerstern was renamed as Helleborus x ericsmithii in his honour, as he was the first to make that cross.
Following on, Elizabeth Strangman, who ran Washfield Nursery in Kent, travelled and collected extensively and discovered two naturally double hellebores in the wild, she went on to breed some lovely double forms as well as many other new strains. She perfected a simple hybridisation and selection technique and published the details in the ‘The Gardener's Guide to Growing Hellebores'.
Robin White of Blackthorn Nursery in Hampshire and John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries in Warwickshire were two enthusiasts who picked up on her pioneering work, along with a few imaginative American and German hybridisers, and took it forward. Robin's fine doubles include the ‘Party Dress Hybrids' and the anemone-centred forms known as ‘Westwood Hybrids'.
John Massey's Ashwood Nursery remains one of our biggest hellebore breeding outlets with huge numbers exported worldwide, in particular to Japan. Two unique interspecies crosses he introduced are Helleborus ‘Briar Rose' and Helleborus ‘Pink Ice'. He offers some superb yellow and apricot forms as well as some with unusual markings.
A lot of significant collecting and breeding on has been carried out by Will McLewin of Phedar nursery and botanist Brian Mathew has studied hellebores intensively and written one of the few hellebore books that are around.
Lynda Windsor and Rodney Davey started their tiny Devon nursery about 25 years ago and five years later Elizabeth Strangman sold them a ‘job lot' of unflowered hellebores. They sold most, but kept back just two or three and started their own breeding programme. Rigorous selection over the years resulted in their ‘Homelea Hybrids', superb singles, doubles, and anemone centred forms. The real breakthrough came with Rodney's marbled group and in 2011/12 he introduced Helleborus ‘Penny's Pink' and Helleborus ‘Anna's Red', two unique crosses. They have been met with much acclaim.
On a much grander scale Roger Harvey of Harveys Garden Plants is producing good hellebores in great numbers, as is Harvington Nursery which produces a huge range and sells directly to Garden Centres.
Copyright © for this article and pictures by Diana Guy (2013). Reproduced with permission.