Building the Perfect Hybrid Hellebore – Part 2

Helleborus x hybridus at Hayefield

Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra

Continuing from Part 1

Helleborus x hybridus greenish white

Flower Colors

I think the only color in hybrid hellebores that’s rather boring is green. I can find charm in other sorts of green flowers, and a bright Granny-Smith-apple green isn’t bad, I guess. But propagating hybrid hellebores with green sepals (the parts that look like petals) mostly seems pointless to me, since you can already find splendid rich greens in straight H. odorus, H. dumetorum, H. foetidus, and other hellebore species. I particularly dislike many of the greens that are optimistically described as yellow in catalog copy. I’m sorry: They’re not yellow, they’re not even chartreuse – they’re green.

Helleborus x hybridus yellowFor many years, I wondered if there was such a thing as a true yellow in the hybrids, even though I’d seen photographs of distinctly yellow blooms, because they seemed so elusive. I finally have one I consider a pretty good yellow, though, so I know the color does exist. Granted, it’s still a bit greenish, but it does read as yellow in the garden, even if it’s near a much brighter yellow, such as that of a daffodil or forsythia.

Helleborus x hybridus near white

Whites are pretty common in hybrid hellebore blooms, but here again, it can be hard to find a clear, bright white that’s not distinctly tinged with green or a somewhat dreary mixture of white, cream, and green.

Helleborus x hybridus pink

Normally, I’m not much for pink flowers, but I can easily make an exception when it comes to hellebores. While greenish pinks can be gruesome, especially as they age, the clear, rich rosy pinks give me the “oh, that’s so lovely” shivers.

Helleborus x hybridus pink

Purples to purplish reds, while very pretty, are kind of ordinary when it comes to hybrid hellebores.

Helleborus x hybridus purple

The really, really dark reds to near-blacks, however, are just as thrilling to me as good pinks.

Helleborus x hybridus near black

Helleborus x hybridus sort of slatyI also have some hybrid hellebores that I think almost qualify as “slaty blues”: deep purple-reds with a sort of grayish cast. (I wasn’t able to get a decent photo of the red-overlaid-with-gray ones today, but this one has something of a smoky look to it.) I don’t know if the experts would classify my plants as true slaty blues, though. I’ve seen hellebores being sold as “slaty blue” that have dull, common-as-dirt purplish red flowers that don’t look anything like I imagined slaty blue should look like. Maybe I just have the wrong mental image of the color. (I still haven’t figured out exactly what color mauve is, so maybe I’ll never quite understand slaty blue either.)

Helleborus x hybridus

My vote: It’s worth searching for great pinks, because they show up beautifully from a distance, and they’re a color that isn’t all that common among other bulbs and perennials that bloom at the same time. Clear whites are also ideal for distance viewing, and they have a delightfully clean, crisp look that’s perfect in the spring garden.

Deep reds to near-blacks are rich and sultry and almost impossible to not touch, but they tend to blend into the mulch or soil unless you plant them right next to a path. They also show off beautifully when combined with lighter pink and white hybrids, with snowdrops and other small, early-blooming bulbs, or with silver or yellow-leaved groundcovers.

Helleborus x hybridus

Special Features

Finally, there’s a handful of miscellaneous traits that can turn an otherwise ordinary hellebore into a Hayefield Top Ten.

Helleborus x hybridus with good substance

One is the “substance” of the flowers. Thin sepals tend to twist more readily, spoiling the form of the flower, and they seem to green up rather quickly as they age, while thicker sepals tend to hold their form and color longer.

Spotting is a more noticeable trait that can be exciting or relatively ho-hum, depending on the size and distribution of the spots and on the background color of the sepals.

Helleborus x hybridus with heavy spotting

Large, distinct, dark spots (as above) tend to produce the best show, especially on white to pink sepals. Pinpoint stippling (as shown below) can be okay, but those sorts of markings tend to be paler and not as eye-catching.

Helleborus x hybridus with fine stippling

It’s ideal when the spotting pattern is evenly spread over each sepal, because irregular spotting (as shown below) can make the flower look half-finished or even deformed.

Helleborus x hybridus

Another feature I particularly like, though with no good reason other than “just because,” is dark nectaries.

Helleborus x hybridus

The nectaries, which are actually the petals of the hellebore flower, appear as the ring of structures around the base of the stamens in the center of each flower.

Helleborus x hybridus

Usually, they’re a greenish or yellowish to bronzy color, but sometimes they’re distinctly red to purple, which makes for a striking contrast to pale-colored sepals.

Helleborus x hybridus

Interior characteristics such as spotting and nectaries are special features generally reserved for the pleasure of gardeners who take the time to lift their hellebore flowers and admire them face to face.

Helleborus x hybridus

If you’re not into touching your plants (handling hellebore leaves may irritate sensitive skin, but apparently), or if they’re in a site where you can’t easily reach them, then you may want to look for blooms that have equally rich colors or interesting shading on the backs of their sepals.

Helleborus x hybridus

Another trait to consider is how the sepals hold up as the flowers age. It’s usual for whites and creams to develop a greenish cast quickly, but on some plants, they develop peachy to pinkish shadings instead, and that’s nice for something different.

Helleborus x hybridus

Pale pinks also tend to green up quickly as they age, or else turn a pinkish ivory color, as shown above. Deeper pinks hold their rosy color longer. The ordinary purplish reds can look pretty darn ugly as they age, as the addition of green to their sepals creates a muddy, icky brown. The very darkest purples tend to lighten up a bit, but they still hold some purpleness (or is that purpletude?) all the way through seed formation, as shown below.

Helleborus x hybridus

We’re used to thinking of hybrid hellebore blooms as separate from the leaves, because we know that the flowers appear first, followed by the main flush of foliage. The fact is, though, that the flowering stems also carry leaf-like bracts, and these bracts can have a big effect on how the flowers show up.

Helleborus x hybridus

Hybrids with especially dark flowers may have red-tinged green to near-black bracts (as shown above), which creates a very dramatic overall darkness, though the effect can also get somewhat gloomy.

Helleborus x hybridus

Bright green bracts (as above) create some contrast, so the dark flowers tend to show off better.

Helleborus x hybridus

On other colors, the bracts mostly aren’t distinctive. But I’ve noticed that white- and cream-flowered hybrids tend to have relatively large, thin, bright green bracts, which seem to be more prone to freeze damage, as shown above, and that browning can end up spoiling the look of the whole clump for the rest of the bloom season.

One more foliage trait that can make hybrid hellebores winners in my world, regardless of their other characteristics, is variegated foliage.

Helleborus x hybridus

Admittedly, the sort of variegation that generally comes though seed production is a streaky set of markings that may or may not be evenly distributed over the whole clump, though sometimes it’s a more distinctive sectional kind of marking.

Considering how long the true leaves are visible, it sort of makes sense to have them offer a little something other than solid green. Unfortunately, the few variegates I have bear rather uninteresting flowers. For now, I enjoy them as novelties, but I’m not sure most other gardeners would find them garden-worthy.

My vote: The addition of any of these special features is enough to give any bloom a higher rating on my scale. I think the only trait here that could seriously detract from the merit of a bloom is dull or uneven spotting. (A bright white bloom with an even distribution of distinct, relatively large, deep red spots is just about perfect in my book.) Flowers that look equally attractive from both front and back, as well as those that age gracefully, get bonus points.

Helleborus x hybridus

The Bad and the Ugly

I could go through every single hellebore photo I have and go on at length about the good and bad points of each one, but I doubt if any of you’d want to hear all that. So, I’ll present only two more: the runner-up for the title of Ugliest Hellebore at Hayefield, because of its uneven petals, irregular spotting, uneven color, and overall less-than-ideal form…

Helleborus x hybridus

And the grand champion of the All-Time Ugliest Hellebore Contest at Hayefield…

Helleborus x hybridus

Eeew. The form is really icky, and the color, while nice in bud, is simply dreadful once it opens.

So, wow, that was probably more than anyone ever wanted to know about my opinions on hybrid hellebores. If you’re still reading, thanks for staying with me. I’d love to hear what you think makes for a great hybrid hellebore.

11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sylvia (England) on April 7, 2008 at 7:18 am

    I am a great fan of Hellebores and have quite a few, well lots for the size of my garden. I went to a nursery which specialised in Hellebores and chose the ones that I liked, which matched your likes and dislikes – except I have a couple of doubles!

    Our weather is milder than yours so the hellebores flower earlier and I went to the nursery just after Christmas so I could get the earliest flowering varieties.

    Thank you for two lovely posts and beautiful pictures.

    You’re so lucky, Sylvia! Here in PA, we’re lucky to start getting flowers by early to mid-March. And very few of us have access to nurseries that specialize in hellebores.
    -Nan

  2. Hi Nan!
    I cant agree!
    I have a beautiful Helleborus Green double spotted
    You can see it on my blog with some ather fine Helleborus.
    I like green in al flowers.
    Ken

    Good for you, Ken – it’s great that we all value different traits, or the world would be a very boring place. Your post shows some very unusual flower forms.
    -Nan

  3. Fabulous post, Nan! I’ve been enjoying the show here at Hawk’s Haven every day now that my hellebores are really coming into their own. But I noticed something this weekend that has a much greater effect on the impact of hellebores than I’d ever have thought: the light. I was screaming at Rob to come look at the effect of a clear pink hellebore under some shrubs across the backyard–even at that distance, the flowers were striking, and as you say, clear pink is welcome at this time of year. A couple of hours later, I paused to look out at them again, and with the sun higher in the sky, if I hadn’t known where to look, I wouldn’t have even seen them. They blended almost seamlessly into the fallen leaves under the shrubs.

    You’re absolutely right about the influence of light. That’s the main reason I couldn’t get a good pictures of what I think are my slaty blues: I was on the ground shooting up into the flowers, and even though it was very cloudy, the backlighting completely changed the way the color appeared.
    -Nan

  4. I’m sorry, but I have to agree – that last photo shows the ugliest Hellebore I have ever seen. You should keep it for that very reason. How about hosting an “Ugliest Hellebore” contest?

    You really think any other hellebore could beat mine? If anyone has one they think is worse, leave a link so we can take a look!
    -Nan

  5. Nan, thanks for all the shots of the hellebores, which are all beauties to my eyes. I would never dig a single one out. Part of their great charm here is the time of bloom. There is little else going on as they begin to open, they are joined a little later by the earliest daffs. As they age, and I love the darkening of the colors as that happens, there are so many other blooms around them that they are barely noticed. But if you want to have babies, and I do, the flowers must be left on to allow the seeds to disperse naturally. Who knows what wonderful crosses might show up? Thanks for giving us your take on the hellies, though.

    To be honest, Frances, I haven’t yet dug any out, even though I ought to. That last one is so pathetically ugly that I almost feel sorry for it, rather like a dog that’s *so* ugly, it’s kind of cute. I think maybe it would like to live with Mom. She’s been known to rescue dug-up plants from my compost pile, so now I just give her any that I don’t want. And they usually look lovely in her garden!
    -Nan

  6. Stop, stop…you’re killing me here! I’m consumed with hellebore envy, and just might invert. I’d swap my ability to grow meconopsis for having a garden festooned with hellebores, any day. Even the ugliest ones.
    They hate me, you see. It’s the winter wet and the late cold/snow tantrums. Or the way I live. Or the colour of my hair. Or something. I’ve killed a dozen or more different types. I’m just doomed.

    Feeling sorry for me yet?

    Aw, poor, poor Jodi…nope, it’s not working. Tell you what, you keep posting pictures of your poppies, and I’ll share my hellebores, and we can both be happy. I do share some of your frustration: As I mentioned to MMD, Helleborus niger hates me. Sniff, sniff….
    -Nan

  7. Lovely posts on Hellebores Nan. Earlier this year I visited a hellebore nursery in Belgium where they had some lovely hellebores on show, both in the garden and inside. There I saw some that were truly yellow and also some that we very close to black (deep charcoal grey). I did a post on that with many pics.

    I like the double flowers as they are so very frivolous and frilly that they make me smile.

    I definitely need to come over to your blog and see your hellebore post. I can’t believe I missed it!
    -Nan

  8. I am another hellebore fan, love that you are breeding them. I am a fan of the double and anemone H. orientalis forms. I have around 50 in my garden along with a couple of other types too. There’s a post about them on my blog if you are interested.

    Welcome, Zoe! I appreciate the visit. Your blog is lovely, and your award of excellence is well deserved. Here’s a direct link to your hellebore post in case anyone else wants to visit: http://scattymare.blogspot.com/2008/02/hellebores.html
    -Nan

  9. Posted by Diana on September 6, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Hi,
    I’ve been interested in Hellebores for years, but I hesitate. How do they hold up to hungry deer?
    -D

    Hi Diana! Hellebores are generally considered to be deer-resistant, but they’re not totally deer-proof. In other words, deer *will* nibble on them (especially the flowers) when they are hungry; at least they do here in southeastern PA. But the plants are less prone to deer damage than many other perennials, so I’d say they are worth a try.
    -Nan

  10. Posted by Gary Shaw on April 25, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    Dear Nan-

    I’m falling in love with the helleborus but wonder if would grow in the parial shade of Los Angeles. Most of the recommended grow zones are 4-9. The common zones in LA are 10-11. Is that too hot? Please advise.
    Thank you.
    -Gary

    Hey, Gary. I’m pretty sure that all hellebores do need some period of winter chilling to bloom, so I’m guessing that you’re likely too warm there. I’ll look into it further and e-mail you directly if I find out anything that indicates that you may have success. How typical of gardeners that you want to grow what we can succeed with here in Zone 6, while we would love to grow many of the plants that you probably take for granted!
    -Nan

  11. I love helleborus and reading through your post just made me squee with delight that someone else has a love for them too. Mine arn’t nearly as established as yours are but I would love to get to that point and can’t wait. Good luck with your garden!

    Welcome, Andrea! One of the greatest things about hellebores is that they just keep getting better every year, so you have many years of enjoyment ahead of you. Good luck to you too!
    -Nan

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