Hellebores at the Northwest Garden Nursery, Oregon

DSC_0487Were hellebores to flower at the peak of the spring entourage rather than late winter to early spring, they would not be as popular as they are with the horticultural cognoscenti. These herbaceous perennials, European and east Asian in distribution, have universal appeal that spans temperate regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Going from John Massey’s poly houses of hellebores during February in England to Barb Jennings’s flowering plants during June in Tasmania, Australia, is a momentous lesson of popular garden plants. Part of their popularity owes to their remarkable promiscuity that a complex heritage has produced Helleborus x hybridus, and few interspecific crosses once thought untenable have been achieved through biotechnology ingenuity. Marketed along with cyclamen and primroses, these interspecific hybrids now appear in the potted plant section of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. However, Helleborus hybridus (once classified under Helleborus orientalis, a true species itself and uncommon in cultivation) has received the most scrutiny from plant breeders. The British and Germans have been breeding hellebores seriously for decades; Eric Smith whose breeding work with hostas yielded ‘Halcyon’ and ‘Blue Moon’, hybridized and grew hundreds of seedlings in the 1960s, as did Helen Ballard who acquired species from the Balkans to enhance her genetic material. Adding to the British hellebore breeding circles was Elizabeth Strangman of Washfield Nursery who did much to popularize these plants, as well as Robin White of Blackthorn Nursery who was among the first to introduce a double-flowered seed strain Party Dress. Ashwood Nurseries, under Kevin Belcher and John Massey’s direction, developed their famed selections on these earlier breeders’ work. The German plantswoman Gisela Schmiemann who published a photographic tribute to Helen Ballard refined her seed strain sold under the Lady Series. Today the bloodlines of British and German hellebores are perpetuated within Winter Jewels™ series, the magnum opus of Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne’s two-decade painstaking work.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Winter Jewels™ Cherry Blossom'

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Winter Jewels™ Cherry Blossom’

The O’Byrnes did not develop an interest in hellebores until they saw beautiful examples depicted in Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman’s The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores, a book that was the source of Americans’ covetous envy at what the British grew. These hellebores were leagues away from the muddy colors and poor forms that plagued strains sold in United States.

The book that launched the O'Byrnes' lifelong passion for hellebores.

The book that launched the O’Byrnes’ lifelong passion for hellebores.

Motivated by the book’s pictures, the O’Byrnes first obtained seed from the hellebore specialists Will McLewin and Gisela Schmiemann. It took a seminal visit with friends to Ashwood Nurseries in the Midlands, England to convert them into full-time hellebore breeders. At least several dozen Ashwood hellebores, augmented by those from Blackthorn and the Dutch nursery De Hessenhof, were successfully imported to Eugene, Oregon where the O’Byrnes reside and garden.

Double-flowered selections are one of O'Byrnes' cornerstones in their breeding work.

Double-flowered selections are one of O’Byrnes’ cornerstones in their breeding work.

Eugene, 2 1/2 hours south of Portland, Oregon, has an ideal climate with average summer and winter temperatures of 70s and 40s F, despite being 100 miles inland and less within the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean. Because hellebores still continue to grow throughout the year, the mild climate encourages earlier maturity and consequently earlier flowering than elsewhere in United States. Ernie said that growing essentially ceases when temperatures fall below 35 degrees F, therefore seedlings in the Northeast US may take two to four years to flower. This climatic advantage allows the O’Byrnes to evaluate and cull failures in their breeding program.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Winter Jewels™ Apricot Blush' shows the excellent traits of O'Bryne's focused breeding: clear and clean color, slightly upward facing orientation, and prolific vigor. Disease resistance is another criterion - any plants showing any symptoms are promptly rejected.

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Winter Jewels™ Apricot Blush’ shows the excellent traits of O’Byrne’s focused breeding: clear and clean color, slightly upward facing orientation, and prolific vigor. Disease resistance is another criterion – any plants showing any symptoms are promptly rejected.

Hellebores in the breeding house await evaluation and culling.

Hellebores in the breeding house await evaluation and culling.

More hellebores in the breeding poly house - 'Winter Jewels™ Black Diamond' can be seen in the foreground.

More hellebores in the breeding poly house – ‘Winter Jewels™ Black Diamond’ can be seen in the foreground.

Breeding usually starts in mid-January when the stock plants in the nursery’s three poly houses flower. The O’Byrnes’ tools of the trade include No. 6 watercolor brushes, tags, alcohol, and fabric bags. Like a roving bumblebee, Marietta transports pollen from one plant to another. She and Ernie then place fabric bags over the flowers during early April to secure the ripening seed lest any fall to the ground and make their careful record keeping negligible. Seed is usually harvested and cleaned in May, and then sowed (some seed are reserved for sale to overseas customers only; the O’Byrnes do not sell domestically to safeguard their work from being propagated illegally).

Hellebore seedlings await pricking out later into individual plugs.

Hellebore seedlings await pricking out later into individual plugs.

Although wholesale nurseries are the primary beneficiaries of the hellebores, the O’Byrnes open their premises twice – one in mid to late February, and another in early March (the last two years had them sold out earlier on the first weekend, causing cancellation of the March open house) – for hellebore enthusiasts to purchase flowering plants. People often queue hours early prior to the 10 am opening for the first dibs on particular colors or shapes, and a mad frenzy of flailing arms and elbows and crouched knees explode in the sales area. It is impressive to see the nearly emptied poly houses in photographs posted on Facebook. “The first year we introduced payment by credit card,” Ernie said, “all our sales went up the roof because people were buying more plants.” Our visit did not coincide with the open days, but we did see the preparations in progress – plants were organized by color and priced accordingly by size; a part time employee was re-potting some overgrown seedlings.

The O'Byrnes are interested in developing richer jewel-like colors, like this 'Winter Jewels™ Ruby Wine'.

The O’Byrnes are interested in developing richer jewel-like colors, like this ‘Winter Jewels™ Ruby Wine’.

What does the future hold? “We want to concentrate on rich colors,” Ernie emphatically said, “we’re moving away from lighter colors like white and pink. And there is always room for better doubles.”  Such strive for excellence certainly puts the O’Byrnes at the pinnacle of their hellebore breeding game, and we can only wait with abated breath for exciting strains in the future. ~Eric

For more info, visit the Northwest Garden Nursery.

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