Hellebore blossoms are opening in my garden, and early bees are enthralled with the wide flowers and thick central stamens. It’s going to be another exciting season of unpredictable seedlings. Hellebores crossbreed and reproduce with enthusiasm, and there’s perpetual confusion as they take free rein with their own hybridization programs. Trying to identify self-sown hellebores is enough to cross the eyes of botanists and gardeners!
My oldest mother plants always have a crowd of flourishing seedlings under their skirts of leaves. I can expect a lottery of flower colours from these volunteer seedlings, although their true character won’t be known until they bloom in their third or fourth year. Some will be identical to the parent while others may be entirely different, but all will have a natural elegance even when the colours are less than vibrant, or even muddy. Occasionally, a pretty pink flower emerges, but more often the seedling flowers are subdued mixes of green, purple and white. The many new hybrid plants (increasingly reproduced from controlled seed strains and tissue culture) are stunningly beautiful, with vibrant colors, extra petals, and many speckles, but perhaps these showstoppers have blinded us to the subtle charms of natural seedlings.
I have clumps of Helleborus atrorubens (Zone 6), with nodding dusky purple flowers touched with green, distinguished by foliage that emerges darkest purple and eventually turns to green. This plant is sometimes used in breeding programs to lend purple and red colour to hybrids. H. atrorubens is often confused with H. purpurascens (Zone 6), a lighter purple-pink flower with bright green emerging foliage. I have the two growing next to each other to better notice the differences. There are a few clumps of Lenten rose plants (H. x hybridus, Zone 5) grown from hybrid seed strains, with speckled pink flowers, and one clump of an exceptionally beautiful double hellebore with rich purple flowers (and unfortunately I’ve lost the name tag).
I also have some named hellebores from various nurseries that have white flowers and thick golden stamens; these are hybrids of H. niger (Zone 5) and all look the same. A clump of the Corsican hellebore H. argutifolius, (Zone 7) is alive, but limping along and diminished each year it survives in this too cold region.
One plant I can’t positively identify has flowers that open in large clusters of green and white blooms. I suspect it’s a named cultivar of H. x nigercors (Zone 6), reputedly the best of all hellebores for cutting, resulting from a cross between H. niger and H. argutifolius.
All hellebores are easy plants to grow, returning reliably (except the struggling Corsican hellebore), and are tolerant of my mildly alkaline soil. I give them lots of leaf litter mulched over their roots, and a feeding of manure in spring.
Taking advantage of the seedlings is a cost-efficient way to increase a hellebore collection. The seedling colonies can sometimes produce enough surplus plants to distribute through a large garden, or naturalize in a woodland landscape. Almost every hellebore will produce seeds (exceptions are heavily hybridized plants, particularly those with double petals) in seed cases that swell as the flowers fade. Do not deadhead the spent blooms. It’s essential to allow flowers to remain as they age, until the seed cases ripen. When the cases are split open have spilled their seeds, the flowers can then be removed. In early summer, the seeds fall straight down in a ring around the plant, resting on the soil surface until they germinate after approximately four weeks. (Fresh hellebore seed germinates quickly; but collected and stored seed develops germination inhibitors that greatly lengthen the process.) Let these tiny seedlings remain under the mother’s skirts until the middle of the following summer, when they will be a year old and strong enough for transplanting.
Although I’ve had great success with self-sown hellebore seedlings, don’t assume that everything in my garden is reproducing with so much gusto. I’ve struggled to grow hardy cyclamens from seed for a decade of frustration, and with pitiful results. Having put, perhaps, 200 basement-grown seedlings of Cyclamen hederifolium and C. purpurascens (both Zone 6) into the garden, I now have a total of eight established plants. In Mediterranean gardens they fill every nook and cranny between rocks and paving stones. In British gardens, they spread in broad sheets under beech trees. But in my Canadian garden, cyclamen are illusive and mysterious in their ways. Clearly I haven’t got the right combination of soil, moisture and temperature these wild and finicky plants prefer. However the eight plants have finally reached enough maturity to flower and set seed; and this spring I found two tiny seedlings (each with only one leaf). We have to be thankful for whatever we get.