growing hellebores, with the late judith knott tyler
ON 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 reached out back then (I think it was to ask about advertising on my website, actually), my first question was: “Didn’t you write the book on hellebores?” And yes, Judith was co-author of “Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide” (affiliate link).
Asking questions you often ask me, and adding some of my own, here’s how the conversation with Judith went–with insights like how hellebores take a couple of years to settle in and start blooming (so don’t panic!):
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.
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.
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.
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.
Q. 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.
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.
Some 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.
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.