Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
Continuing from Part 1…
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.
For 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.
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.
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.
Purples to purplish reds, while very pretty, are kind of ordinary when it comes to hybrid hellebores.
The really, really dark reds to near-blacks, however, are just as thrilling to me as good pinks.
I 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.)
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.
Finally, there’s a handful of miscellaneous traits that can turn an otherwise ordinary hellebore into a Hayefield Top Ten.
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.
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.
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.
Another feature I particularly like, though with no good reason other than “just because,” is dark nectaries.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bright green bracts (as above) create some contrast, so the dark flowers tend to show off better.
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.
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.
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…
And the grand champion of the All-Time Ugliest Hellebore Contest at Hayefield…
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.