Jelena de Belder
by M.J. Harvey 2004
In 1952 two brothers, George and Robert de Belder in Belgium bought an acreage of derelict land covered with weeds and clumps of shrubs and trees. The area, called Kalmthout, had been used for growing vegetables in World War II but early in its history had been a nursery started in 1856 by Geer and taken over in 1896 by Antoine Kort who raised rhododendrons and conifers on the sandy soil. Kort was also involved in hybridizing numerous shrubs including Hamamelis species. The nursery business closed in World War I, Kort retained the property but eventually the rows of shrubs grew into each other forming impenetrable tangles in places.
While the brothers were restoring the old nursery they were visited in 1954 by Jelena Kovacic, a recent graduate of horticulture from Slovenia in what was then Yugoslavia. Robert and Jelena fell in love, married and carried out the restoration of Kalmthout which is now one of the world’s more famous arboreta. Handing Kalmthout over to a trust they later created an even larger arboretum, Hemelrijk (kingdom of heaven in Flemish), near Esschen on the border with the Netherlands.
Robert and Jelena were responsible for not only the Kalmthout restoration but introduced several shrub cultivars. The witch hazel Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ was teased out of one of Kort’s thickets as was ‘Diane’, named for their daughter.
Here in Victoria ‘Jelena’ is one of the best winter shrubs existing. In fact let me throw caution to the wind and say it is the best. The narrow, ribbon-like petals are a coppery orange with a bit of yellow and start to bloom in mid December. A bunch of twigs arranged in a vase in the house open their blossoms in three or so days in December and put out a perfume resembling the Christmas mandarin orange peel. Frost and snow damage neither the buds nor the open flowers – they bounce back the next warm day. The flowering period, being in the cool season, lasts into March. There is no better value in winter shrubs and in the fall the leaves change to vivid orange and yellow colours.
Other cultivars for which the couple were responsible include Hydrangea serrate ‘Spreading Beauty’, H. paniculata ‘Brussels Lace’, ‘Burgundy Lace’, ‘Unique’, ‘White Moth’ and ‘Pink Diamond’.
Jelena de Belder was elected a Royal Horticulture Society Vice-President in 1998 and part of this account is derived from the obituary in the RHS journal ‘The Garden’. Jelena died 31 August 2003 aged 78.
(This article was originally written for the Finnerty Gardens newsletter). It is a fine winter’s tale (ED.)