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growing hellebores, with judith knott tyler

picotee double hellebore pine knotON A FORMER Virginia tobacco farm that was in her family for six generations, Judith Knott Tyler and her husband, Dick, spent 30ish years breeding and raising quite a different crop: hellebores. Dick continues that work since Judith’s death in 2016.  She and I had spoken a couple of years earlier about her beloved hellebores and how to get these deer-resistant perennials settled in the garden; how semi-shade (and not deepest darkness!) is more to their liking; some extra-gorgeous varieties, plus some companion plants that are favored at Pine Knot Farms.

When Dick and Judith had reached out to ask about advertising on the website, my first question was: “Didn’t you write the book on hellebores?” And yes, Judith was co-author of “Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide,” from Timber Press.

Asking questions you often ask me, and adding some of my own, here’s how the conversation with Judith went:

dark double hellebores pine knota hellebore q&a with pine knot farms

Q. I think it’s safe to say that you have long been passionate about (obsessed with?) hellebores. What about these plants was the draw factor–since you discovered them before many of us did?

A. We fell in love with hellebores at first probably because of the time they bloom. Both of us enjoyed being outside during the winter. We moved to Virginia from British Columbia, where people do things outside all winter long. Ski, snowshoe, hike, whatever outdoor activity you chose. The climate is so much more conducive to being outside here in January than it is there.

We got our first hellebores in 1983. Hellebores not only bloomed in the winter, they were also an amazingly tolerant plant in the garden.

Q. Of course from your writing and reputation I know you couldn’t just leave well enough alone and simply enjoy the plants, but started breeding, too [photo above is some of Pine Knot’s double darks, from their Southern Belles series, for example].

A. Because it was the slow time at the nursery when they bloomed, I began messing about trying to breed a hellebore with pure white blossoms. Later, when I began to actually learn something about breeding rather than just blundering about like a mad bumblebee, I found that it was much more difficult to remove spots from a bloom than to insert them.

After our first trip to the U.K. in 1992, when we saw what was available there, we wanted to come home and throw our plants away and start over. The colors they had there were colors we had never even dreamed of: pure clean whites and pinks, as well as dark purples and blushed purple and blue-green. Truly enchanting.

Bowl of x hybridus hellebore flowers at Pine KnotQ. I often get this question from readers: “I planted hellebores from the garden center last year, and they didn’t really do anything, or bloom this year. What’s wrong?”

A. A couple of things could be the problem.  If you purchased a small plant, it may just need time to grow up. Hellebores flower between two and three years after transplanting, so maybe your plant was just a baby. Hellebores, like many other plants, take awhile to settle in.

If you purchased a larger plant in flower, it is not uncommon for the plant to take
a year off after being taken out of its container and planted into your soil.

The most common kind of hellebore sold, the Lenten rose types [sometimes referred to as the orientalis hybrids or more specifically Helleborus x hybridus–photos of some flowers above] have a very large and far-reaching root system. It is not uncommon to purchase a hellebore plant that has roots that are wrapped all around the pot.

This does not necessarily mean the plant was poorly grown, it just makes a lot of roots fairly rapidly once the plant reaches a certain age. Loosening the root ball, or cutting the roots in a couple of places, helps the plant get out of its container shape and into the nice, rich soil you planted it in.

Q. Generally speaking, what do hellebores want to be happy in our gardens–what kind of location, and care?

A. Hellebores will grow in a wide range of conditions. While most of us think of them as “shade plants,” they are shade-tolerant plants.

In the Balkans, we saw that the plants growing in the woodland would have very few flowers, while those growing out in the field had many more flowers on more robust plants.

In the field there during the summer, though, bracken (Pteridium spp.) or grasses would grow up around them to offer a bit of shade. This is easily copied in the garden by growing hellebores with other taller perennials or shrubs that provide some summertime relief.

Q. What about soil?

A. Ideally, they want a well-drained soil, and we feel that more plants are killed by too much water than by any other cause.

While all of us would love to garden in soil we could stick our hands into, most of us are not so blessed. If I tried to stick my fingers into our soil, for instance, I would end up with broken fingers. We live in a forest, and our soil is a couple of inches of forest duff, then 10 to 12 inches of tree roots and rocks and then red clay. The South is not known for its brick-making for no reason. Our soil is the major component of those bricks.

Hellebores tolerate even this soil just fine once they acclimate themselves. A period of adjustment is required after planting, when we try to coax the plants roots out of the soilless potting media they have been growing in while container-bound.

During this time, it can be difficult to determine if the plant is too wet or too dry. The soilless media most plants are grown in now will dry out much faster than the surrounding soil, so particular attention must be paid to watering while they adjust and get settled.

One more tip: In very heavy clay, before planting we amend the soil with organic matter, such as composted pine bark or other material.

helebore cleanup 1Q. What about ongoing maintenance? I cut the leaves off my x hybridus or Lenten rose types when the snow melts [above], but do all species like that treatment?

A. Once Helleborus plants are established they do not need a great deal of maintenance. We tell people to think of them as you would peonies: nothing needed aside from an annual cleanup and a bit of compost.

We cut back our old foliage on the Lenten rose types before bloom time. If you do this in late autumn or early winter it is easy to grab the foliage and just whack it back, while if you wait till the flower stems begin to emerge, it is a much more meticulous job. [Note: In the North, you probably have until late winter, since flower stems may not push until then, or even earliest spring.]

Helleborus niger does not like to have all its foliage removed, so just cut off dying or damaged foliage as required.

The “caulescent” species (meaning: having an above-ground stem), like H. foetidus and H. argutifolius, are halfway between. You may remove damaged stem leaves, but do not cut back the stem until new growth breaks at the base. Also, if you remove the stem, you remove the flowers.

Helleborus ×ballardiae 'Raulston Remembered'Q. What about transplanting and dividing? In my experience, the x hybridus types or Lenten roses don’t seem to need it, but people ask me a lot about “when to divide.”

A. Lenten rose plants can top out at about 3 feet across, at perhaps 25 years old. Unlike many perennials (Siberian irises, for instance), they don’t die out in the center–another reason I tell people to think of them as they do peonies, which are long-lived.

A rootball of a mature plant can be bushel-basket sized, something to consider before deciding to transplant it.  One would need a very strong back to dig the plant. Lenten roses types must be cut apart, they can not be twiddled apart with the hands and wrists like daylillies.

H. niger and the interspecies hybrids [that’s Helleborus × ballardiae ‘Raulston Remembered,’ one of Pine Knot’s creations, above] have a much more shallow-growing root system and can easily be dug. If the soil is removed, you should be able to see the new eyes and can divide the plant along these parts.

If you do plan to divide, fall is the best time to do so.

Q. And what about all those babies that surround a parent plant, the seedlings?

A. As to seedlings, H. niger usually does not produce too many seedlings and the sterile interspecies plants produce none, but Lenten roses may produce hundreds of seedlings around a large parent plant. The absolute best time to move these is almost as soon as you see them after germination. We have found that it is not necessary to wait for the true leaves  before transplanting; it is much more important not to damage the root.  You may move the plants into the garden or pot them up to share with friends.

helleborus foetidusQ. My H. foetidus have been with me a long time here in Zone 5B, but they won’t stay put [above, romping through a bed many yards from where I first put them]. They have a mind of their own where they want to grow. Is this the deal with them? Are any other species like that?

A. We think of H. foetidus as a short-lived perennial somewhat like Aquilegia, or columbine. It is a true perennial, but it is not going to stay where you put it. The original plant will die off after a few years but, like Charlotte’s Babies, mom will leave seedlings behind to carry on the job.

H. foetidus has a very shallow root system and does not like to have too much water about, so planting under evergreens is good. The only other species that behaves in this manner to my knowledge is H. x sternii in some places.

Rhubarb and Cream hellebore, Pine KnotQ.  If you had to pick three favorites, could you? A species, or a color, or a particular variety or form?

A. Rather like choosing my favorite child, eh? I do like the Lenten roses, but which color depends on the day.  Picotee forms [like the one in the top-of-page photo] are always good, and the form we call Rhubarb and Custard, too [above]. It’s a cream and raspberry strain that a British friend of ours said reminded her of her favorite dessert, Rhubarb and Custard, so we call it that in her honor.

I love the purple and green forms that remind me of their ancestors.

Josef lempur helleboreSome of the hybrid plants I have crossed with species are my personal faves. They have the purple and green colors and the diminutive, graceful habit of the species. Also I like H. niger, especially the clone from Germany HGC  ‘Josef Lemper’ [above], which is early flowering, long-stemmed for cuts, and has beautiful pure white flowers like all H. niger.

snowdrops and hellebores 2Q. When we spoke, you alluded to “two or three other plants that [you] tend to obsess on.” What are those, and why? 

A. Uh-oh, in trouble now! As we traveled about the U.K. and parts of Europe (we’ve made over 20 winter trips so far) we got hooked on hellebores, but we also found a long list of plants that are attractive in winter and early spring that we could grow with our hellebores.

If I have to choose a few favorites, Epimedium, Trillium, Hepatica; all miniature spring bulbs, especially Narcissus species, and Galanthus [above photo] would be the major obsessions. Love ephemeral plants. By their nature, they must be appreciated when they happen: You snooze, you lose.

  1. Linda says:

    A moment too late . . . I just cut back the foliage on my nigers. Good to know though. I didn’t realize they shouldn’t be cut back – that may explain why they don’t bloom some years. I also didn’t realize they’re not as likely to seed themselves as others. Hope last year’s seedlings are still there after our harsh winter.

  2. Jenny says:

    Thank for the article. I have several Pine Knot Hellebores, but overall, the orientalis hybrids do not like my yard. I live in Beaufort, SC and have pretty nice well drained soil. It is very acid, though. The only ones that do well are H. foetidus.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Marion. Judith and Dick do have open garden days in February and March, and then I believe by appointment at other times.

  3. How wonderful to wake up to a post on one of the great under-appreciated plants around. Long lasting, beautiful, and durable in the cold–made to order for a North Jersey garden.
    I have a question–have hellebores ever been used medicinally or homeopathically?

  4. Janet says:

    Love my hellebores which I started about 10 years ago under a light deciduous canopy where grass was struggling [my first project in transforming a grass yard into a garden]. After a few years of layering grass clippings, leaves and pine needles, the five hellebores along with cyclamen corms around the border were planted. They are both happily spreading and colonizing in my Greensboro, NC front garden.

    Thank you for the knowledge of potting up the babies…I have so many! Now my gardening friends will also be blessed!!!

    Janet

  5. Vickie says:

    How nice to see this article. Next to peonies, I enjoy the hellebores. I only have one and I planted her when she was a throwaway at the garden center about ten years ago. She has spread considerably and given me lovely spring gifts of her blooms every year. I do nothing special except give her compost late in the fall. I live in eastern Kansas. Lots of really bad weather this winter, but her shoots are poking through a layer of leaves from the silver maple. I won’t pull the leaves back yet since they are predicting snow.

  6. Kathy says:

    I have been purchasing plants from Pine Knot farms even before they had such a wonderful Hellebore collection and this year we as the first that I missed their open house only because I moved away from Virginia and am now in Greensboro N.C. Trying to establish anew smaller garden.But among the plants I brought with me were several pots of Pine Knot Hellebores Had a plan in mind for where I would create a new home for them but a very destructive ice storm 2weeks ago took down several trees so my landscape has changed a bit. So back to the drawing board. The potted galleries have not skipped a beat and are blooming beautifully. Really wonderful plants and Dick and Judy Tyler are amazing gardeners and lovely people.

  7. kim says:

    Thank you for this article. I love the large variety of colors. The rhubarb and cream flower is so pretty!
    I haven’t grown any yet but they are on my ‘wish list’. I am slowly changing my dirt & weed yard into a vegetable& flower garden.

  8. MK says:

    What a lovely article on one of my favorite plants. I wish I could figure out how to print in out? Anyway, I first “discovered” Hellebore’s in Beth Chatto’s garden in East Anglia long ago, but have just recently begun growing them with quite surprising success given the vastly different climate here in Boulder, Colorado. They’re such a joy!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, MK. Prints fine for me using my usual printer commands (I am on a Mac, so I click COMMAND and “P” at the same time).

  9. Heather Chapman says:

    Margaret: If you are ever in Falls Village check out Tom and Roberta Scott’s hellebores at Falls Village Flower Farm on Kellogg Street (off Rte 7). They’re spectacular and a number of them live in my garden. H

  10. Sandra says:

    Love love love Hellebores, found Judith’s book a great inspiration in my past studies. Had a wonderful collection in a prior garden. Trying to build my collection up now in a new garden on a new continent and regularly pull the book out.

  11. Mark says:

    I just love my hellebores and couldn’t imagine my garden without them. My favorite is what must be a complex hybrid I got from England that has nearly black flowers. It’s amazing to see it every year. Off to browse the Pine Knot site!

  12. Nora says:

    I’ve purchased hellebores from Pine Knot Farms and I just can’t say enough about them. The plants are excellent and the prices are awesome. I have planted mine in less than ideal locations and the plant still thrive and perform better and better each year.

    I’ve purchased my plants at the Lewis Ginter plant sales in Richmond, Virgina, but I hope to be able to make a trip to the farm one day.

  13. naomi d. says:

    I bought some green blooming hellebores several years back, cheap, just to see if they’d make it here. I planted them in two locations, some under palmyras in my zone 9 yard, and I pretty much forgot about them. The first bloom was two years back in a bed and lasted over a month. I moved it under the palmyra, and it had quite a rootball. I knew I wouldn’t be moving those again. I’m ready for more color, and had been wondering about Pine Knot. Thanks for all the info and the link to their site. I’m figuring they’ll know which will do best here in New Orleans (aside from that green).

  14. I placed several H. Foetidus seedlings under my pines last year as an experiment – glad to know they should be ok. They’re one of my favorites for cut flowers too! And I love the purity of Germany HGC ‘Josef Lemper’, adding that to my shopping list. Thanks!

    Caroline

  15. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    After the third year with my H. foetidus which was a fabulous gift from a friend, I found a tight cluster of many seedlings about 35 feet away from the mother plant. I was gleeful at this discovery and relocated them when the time allowed. Right now I have some fresh H. foetidus seed in a winter sowing jug outside to see if they will sprout with the added benefit of freeze and thaw cycles. I look forward to creating a larger show with these architectural beauties. Thanks for this very informative article on Hellebores. :>)

  16. Mary O. says:

    As this column was being published, I was touring Judith and Dick’s operation and garden –who knew! Not only can they grow fabulous hellebores, but they have the largest edgeworthia I’ve ever seen. It must be at least 6 feet tall and 5 feet wide. If you can’t make it to one of their open houses, come see them at one of the plant sales in Virginia. They will be at Garden Fair at Blandy in Boyce, VA on Mother’s Day weekend and at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, VA on May 17. Be prepared for too many must-have choices!!

  17. Sarah says:

    Pine Knot also often comes to the US Nat’l Arboretum (D.C.) and Green Spring (Northern VA) plant sales. Lovely people. Enjoyed the open house a couple years ago, and Plant Delights has open house same weekend, as does Camellia Forest. So you can visit several nurseries at same time. Nancy Goodwin’s garden in Hillsborough is also a place to visit that time of year, you may just miss the snowdrops, but we saw lots of cyclamen in her woods.

    Just wish some of the photos were I.D.’d. Maybe if I look in the book?

    Thanks,
    Sarah

  18. Sandra Parrill says:

    I started with a hellebore orientalis some 25 years ago, and at 4′ across it’s almost the biggest plant in my garden, with hundrds of blooms, throwing off babies by the thousands every year. I also have h. niger, and most years their bloom time overlaps, so I would not be surprised if they don’t cross pollinate. The H. niger is mature (though not as big as the orientalis) and reseeds prolifically too. The seedlings have been very interesting through the years. I have gotten a wide range of colors when they bloom from deep, wine reds to pale pink, and creamy whites with dark centers. I’ve scattered them through the woods on my acre, and I can’t wait to see the young ones come into bloom tosee what’s new. I’ve added a few doubles to my plantings, and though I have not yet ordered from you, I expect I will in the near future. I love hellebores!

  19. Irene S. Di Maio says:

    Whoops! Never cut off the old leaves until new ones grew in previous years. Spurred on by Margaret’s recent blog, I just cut away last year’s growth this morning. Hope I did not do too much damage. Laissez-faire might be preferable to over zealous.

  20. Betsy Wells says:

    Hellebores are wonderful cut flowers. And they start blooming when nothing else is in bloom, except maybe a few early bulbs, and the blooms last a long time. My garden club uses them in arrangements for our house and garden tour in late April.

    I’ve learned not to compost the seed pods or you will have hellebore seedlings everywhere you spread the compost.

  21. Michael says:

    I’ve purchased hellebores from Pine Knot Farms and can attest to the quality and vigor of their plants. A great online nursery!!!

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