Heaven is a Black Hell!

by M.J. Harvey - May 1999

By taking the blunderbuss approach – growing some 600 plants – I’ve got 4 or 5 good black hellebores. The seeds came from three sources: Basil Smith in England, Gisela Schmiemann in Germany and John Weagle in Nova Scotia. Most of their plants in turn derive from plants produced by Helen Ballard. My aim in growing so many seeds was to obtain a variety of colours. Not all were of dark origin.

 All these seeds were from quality, in some cases named, seed parents. The big problem with hellebores is bees. It is apparent that crossing between nearby plants is rampant. For example, some samples of ‘yellow’ seeds gave all shades from white to yellow to pink and red.

 Among the wide variety of colours available, the most highly prized – possibly illogically – are the plants with black flowers. These have very deep purple-red flowers. Most of the genes for blackness come from their Helleborus torquatus parent, but this is overlaid on a genetic background of several other species especially H. orientalis abchasicus. The torquatus also contributes a grey bloom over the surface of the ‘petals’.

Tiresome fact: the ‘petals’ of hellebores are derived from sepals. It is the nectaries that are the ‘true’ petals.

Suppliers of hellebore seeds do not hand-pollinate and bag their flowers. Hence the low percentage of offspring resembling the named female plant. This is a problem in the trade.

What I am doing is hand-pollinating flowers on plants kept in a greenhouse (to keep out bees). According to Helen Ballard selfing produces useless offspring. (This is the generally accepted belief. I would like to see some proof). But with this in mind I am crossing different plants with similar characteristics i.e. yellow crossed with yellow, black with another black and so on.

Fortunately John Weagle sent me pollen from two famous black hells to put on to the stigmas of my own (unfamous) specimens. These are ‘Philip Ballard’ and ‘Ashwood Black’. The former is named for Helen Ballard’s husband (himself a hybridiser especially of snowdrops), and the latter has dark-purplish young leaves. At the time of writing the seed production from these crosses is unknown.

Getting named clones of hellebores is very difficult. The plants grow slowly and form dense, compact rootstocks. Dividing these is difficult and not very rewarding. For this reason the majority of trade plants are seedlings, which by definition are not named clones.

What I find in the ordinary nursery trade (as opposed to nurseries specialising in hellebores), is a lot of plants with very low-grade flowers. This is surprising considering the sophistication with which most other plants are bred. The current situation as far as the general public is concerned is way back in the Middle Ages. I think we can expect things to improve in the next few years. Then anyone can have a black Hell.