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Spring in bloom: For the love of hellebores

by timber press on April 17, 2018

in Design, Gardening

A colorful mix of hellebores. All included photos by Doreen Wynja.

To celebrate the return of gardening season and  A Tapestry Garden, enjoy this delightful love letter to Hellebores by Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne!

As years passed and our garden grew larger and lovelier with each season, leaving it each morning to landscape the gardens of others in town was more and more difficult. Our hour of departure got later and later. Just a little weeding and pruning before leaving stretched out into hours, until we were arriving in town shortly before noon and were still cleaning up the gardens of our clients as they were sitting down to dinner. Finally, we arrived at a solution: Why not start a nursery? We could raise the plants we loved and needed for landscaping jobs and stay home longer. With the urging and advice of our nursery-owner friend Roger Gossler, we ventured into the retail nursery business. We specialized in more unusual and hard-to-find perennials and shrubs. The retail business expanded for seventeen years until hellebores filled our greenhouses and there was no more room, water, or time to raise other plants for sale. Hellebores took over our life, too. Our business became a hellebore breeding facility and wholesale nursery.

Helleborus ×hybridus Winter Jewels Sparkling Diamond is pure white.

During my early gardening years, I had not been very impressed by the hellebores that were then called Helleborus orientalis and are now called H. ×hybridus. Of sturdy constitution but with undistinguished greenish, muddy-colored flowers, they were usually relegated to the back of woodland gardens and bloomed at the end of winter when no one noticed. How things have changed. Since about 1945, gardeners, especially in England, have been at work developing better color strains by hybridizing about a dozen species of acaulescent species hellebores. We received our first seeds of some of these promising new cultivars from Will McLewin in England and Gisela Schmiemann in Germany in the early 1990s. Soon afterward, The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores (1993) was published with photos of brightly colored flowers in various hues. We were smitten and intrigued. We were drawn to Europe on a pilgrimage to the best hellebore nurseries, which initiated our addiction to hellebores now in its twenty-fifth year.

Helleborus ×hybridus Winter Jewels Apricot Blush.

Hellebore, also known as Lenten rose, belongs to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and is divided into two main groups that are, for the most part, genetically incompatible with each other. Members of Helleborus ×hybridus and their species ancestors belong to the acaulescent, or stemless, group. They have no true stem (leaf and flower stalks don’t count) and hybridize freely with each other. The other group, called caulescent, or stemmed, consists of H. argutifolius, the tallest, from Corsica, H. lividus from Spain, H. niger, or the Christmas rose, having underground stems, and H. foetidus, the loner, which doesn’t cross with any other species but is widespread in Europe. We grow a form of H. foetidus with intensely pewter-colored leaves, which loves drought and full sun and is not long-lived but reseeds itself. The most common of the stemmed group, H. ×sternii, is actually a hybrid of H. argutifolius and H. lividus. Look closely and you will see that flowers and leaves emerge from a true stem.

Helleborus ×hybridus Winter Jewels Onyx Odyssey.

In February, 2004, we set out for Europe and our first trip to Ashwood Nurseries, in Kingswinford, England, the Mecca of all hellebore lovers. We traveled with Dick and Judith Tyler, owners of Pine Knot Farms in Virginia, and fellow hellebore addict, Cole Burrell. Judith and Cole subsequently published the invaluable Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide (2006). We searched in England, Holland, and Germany for the finest Helleborus ×hybridus then being bred. At Ashwood, we were permitted to select from all their pre-sale plants, but with a caveat. Kevin Belcher, their outstanding hellebore breeder, would examine our choice selections with his discerning eye and take back whatever plant he saw as a fitting candidate for his own breeding program. Watching him take back an elegant, black-flowered specimen or a choice yellow was an agonizing moment. We did, though, return with many excellent plants of then-rare colors from Ashwood and other outstanding European nurseries. We shipped a trove of flowering hellebores home. They survived the bare-rooting, the inspections, and more than a week in transit, all while in bloom.

Helleborus ×hybridus Winter Jewels Fire and Ice, a recent result in our breeding program.

We dreamed of breeding ever better and brighter hellebore flowers with good foliage to match. We followed the dreams of our imagination. We bred for a brilliant yellow flower that is slow to turn green, slate flowers that one could call blue with only a bit of a stretch, and shapely flowers with rounded, even sepals and colorful backs that would entice even the casual viewer. Sometimes different colors on the outside and inside can surprise us when lifting a flower head, as in the Winter Jewels examples of purple Amethyst Gem and dark Harlequin Gem. A short petiole raises them to a more vertical position. We love the semi-doubles with nectaries of different shades, truly black flowers, and big, blowsy doubles that hang their heads only to show off the colorful tips of inner petals like the tutus of ballerinas.

We are often asked why we don’t strive for up-facing flowers. Like many other early bloomers from winter snowy or rainy climates (think daffodils or snowdrops), these plants must keep their pollen dry so it does not rot and, with it, the flower. Some other smaller flowered early bloomers bend their heads or close their flower when skies turn gray, such as crocus and Anemone nemorosa.

Helleborus ×hybridus Winter Jewels Amethyst Gem, a dark purple-red with a narrow pink edge on its sepals.

We netted our stock houses with shade cloth for our ever-increasing collections and to exclude those pesky bees that would muddy our progeny with their indiscriminate pollinating. They could have a go at the expanding outdoor hellebore plantings. All stock plants are numbered and categorized by color and placed on tables to save our backs.

When seeds start to ripen, each flower is bagged in a small cotton mesh bag so the seeds don’t fall on the ground, and we sow the seed thereafter. The next winter we are excited to see the seedlings emerge. One or two years later, following potting and repotting, the first resulting flowers of our breeding work open in February. For us, it is the beginning of a new spring…


Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne are the co-owners of Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Oregon. Formerly a retail nursery specializing in unusual plants, it is now a wholesale nursery specializing in hellebores. The two keep a garden renowned for its stunning combinations and variety of habitats. You can visit the nursery’s website at www.northwestgardennursery.com.


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