Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
Back in my March Bloom Day post, I made a comment about loving all of my hybrid hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus). At the time, I meant it. But now that they’ve been in bloom for a few weeks, I find myself qualifying that statement frequently. Some clumps I visit daily or even more often, even if I have to go out of my way a bit. Others I walk past multiple times a day and seldom notice. And still others make me wish I had a shovel in hand so I could end their (and my) misery.
Noticing the differing amounts of attention I give each clump inspired me to come up with a simple three-level rating system for the Hayfield hellebores. A particular hellebore may be exceptional (good enough to take with me if I ever had to move again, and possibly even good enough for breeding stock); or mediocre (I like it but wouldn’t lose sleep over it if it died); or plain old ugly (I wouldn’t even give it away). Pondering this made me start wondering which specific traits made certain hybrid hellebores outstanding and others also-rans.
The result of that wondering was a rather extensive list of features, some of which are immediately obvious and others I hadn’t really put into words before. Now, if you’re still at the “every hellebore is a good hellebore,” stage, that’s terrific: They’re lovely plants, and I’d be sorry to make you like your own plants less if they don’t match what I personally value in mine. But if you’ve been getting a bit “hellebored” with your hellebores and are looking to thin out your collection and/or acquire some possibly better plants, then perhaps some of these points will give you some standards to consider.
Hybrid hellebores typically bear nodding blooms, as shown above. Sometimes they’re distinctly bell-like from the time they open through seed formation; sometimes they’re consistently tilted slightly downward; and sometimes they start out downward-facing and turn outward or even upward as they mature.
To my mind, the averted faces are a charming feature: You can either admire them from a distance or take the time to approach, bend down, and gently tilt them upward to admire their otherwise hidden features. True, the ground is often cold and damp during hellebore bloom season, so kneeling in the mud isn’t always the most fun thing to do. The experience of interacting with the blooms and seeing beauty that you might otherwise have missed can be worth a good amount of physical discomfort, though.
I’ve heard a lot of rumblings about people wanting hellebore flowers to face distinctly upward. I’m not sure whether these nameless people are gardeners, or plant breeders, or marketing folks, or photographers. I can certainly understand the advantage to photographers, and being able to tout a “new and improved” feature makes it a whole lot easier to write zippy catalog copy. And from a breeding perspective, it gives something different to shoot for, I suppose.
I’m not sure I get why a gardener would find outward- or upward-facing blooms (as shown above) a major improvement. Is it because they don’t have to get down and touch the flowers? That saves a few seconds of time, I guess, and it’s a bit easier on creaky joints. There are plenty of other spring flowers with easily visible blooms, though. Why do we need to make hellebores more ordinary?
I’ve heard that there’s a practical advantage to the blooms facing downward: it protects their pollen from rain. While that wouldn’t matter much to gardeners, I imagine it’s an advantage from a breeding perspective.
Here’s a distinctly cupped, outward-facing bloom doing what cups do: holding a relatively large amount of water. It’s easy to see that might be a problem if the pollen were ready to be released, and it seems like it could encourage disease problems as well. I haven’t heard any proof of that, however; it’s just conjecture on my part.
My vote: If haven’t yet guessed, I give the nod to nodding blooms. I don’t have any good reason to dislike the outward- or upward-facing ones, except that they’re getting trendy and that annoys me on general principle.
For the most part, hybrid hellebore blooms fall into one of three groups:
- starry (with somewhat pointed sepals [the parts that look like petals])
- scalloped (with a wavy outline)
- rounded (with an essentially circular outline)
To my mind, the exact form isn’t as important as having evenly shaped sepals that overlap nicely. I’ve noticed that sharply pointed sepals often twist a bit, so there are distinct gaps between them, and that makes the appearance less pleasing, in my opinion.
Then, there are the double-flowered hybrid hellebores. After seeing one at a nursery recently and deciding I didn’t like it, I was stunned to find out that I actually have some in my garden. I know I didn’t buy them, but I do remember that a seed strain I acquired years ago was supposed to have some double genes in it, so I guess that’s where they came from.
I understand the allure of having something different, but you know, it just doesn’t look like a hellebore. I could describe the flowers as quirky, or whimsical, or shaggy-looking, I suppose, but not elegant, which is the adjective that often comes to mind when I look at my favorite hellebore blooms.
My vote: As far as single blooms are concerned, I’m open to those with starry outlines if they have other good features, but my preference is for those with gently scalloped to circular outlines and overlapping sepals with no gaps. And doubles? Well, as I said, I wouldn’t buy one (or rather, invest in one, considering their usual price range), but I’m not about to shovel-prune mine either. I’ll wait a few years to pass judgment on whether they’re worthy of using for breeding.
Had enough for now? Me too. I think I’ll stop here and finish this in another post (Building the Perfect Hybrid Hellebore – Part 2).