Breeding Heavenly Hellebores

Condensed from a Pacific Coast Nurseryman article by Kathleen Pyle, February 2010
Photos courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries

Hellebores are a favorite of many gardeners at this time of year. I recently read an article in a nursery trade publication about a well-known Eugene breeder of Hellebores. I thought you might be interested in the process of breeding the winter blooming perennials. (In my opinion, no garden should be without at least a few hellebores!)

Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne are the proprietors of Northwest Garden Nursery, a wholesale nursery in Eugene specializing in hellebores (be sure to take the virtual tour on their Web site of their spectacular garden). “In the 1980s when we operated a landscaping business, hellebore flowers were pretty much pale and undistinguished, but they do bloom at a convenient time of year and stay evergreen,” observes Marietta. “When I read a book called The Gardeners Guide to Growing Hellebores and saw the variety of flower colors coming out of the United Kingdom, I began to get excited about hellebores.”

The O’Byrnes’ hellebore project started with seed and stock plants from several European growers. Then they began the painstaking work of hand pollinating, bagging pollinated flowers, carefully labeling seedlings, and ultimately selecting and culling the results. “Hellebore breeding isn’t quick work,” Marietta explains. “The plants can be very long lived, to 20 years or more, but they start slowly. The seed doesn’t germinate for about a year and then it takes one to two additional years for the plants to produce their first blooms.”

Hybrid hellebores sold today represent the bloodlines of 16 or 17 different species, originating in Europe and Asia. “The process of seedling selection is very personal and represents the taste of the individual breeder. I tend to favor seedlings that produce flowers in nice clear colors, nothing murky or spotted,” Marietta comments.

Aptly christened Winter Jewels®, the O’Byrne’s hellebore introductions span the spectrum from deep maroon black to apricot, yellow, and raspberry edged white. Pedicel length (pedicels are the branches or stalks that hold each flower in an inflorescence that contains more than one flower) and flower angle, especially in the single-flowered types, also rank high as a breeding focus. Short pedicels are desired because the flowers tend to face vertically, not bow downwards.
Winter Jewels strains are gems among the many hellebore varieties in the market because they are seed-propagated strains, not tissue cultured, so they are very vigorous, disease resistant plants. Flower shades are vibrant and the double bloom types are fully double.

The holy grail hellebore breeders may be reaching for in the future include double and complex colors, contrasting petal edges, and brightly colored flower backs. “Because double flowers nod, the backside should be visually striking, too,” says Marietta. A new double-flowered form much like a dianthus, with frilled sepals is also a direction being pursued by breeders. (In hellebores, the flowers actually have sepals, not petals; the sepals modified to look like petals.) No one prototype represents perfection in the hellebore world. To the O’Byrnes, perfection is a continuous pilgrimage with beautiful results at every bend in the road.

To learn more about hellebores, check out Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide by C. Colston Burrell, Judith Knott Tyler, Richard Tyler, and Daniel J. Hinkley.