T&M Hellebore breeding programme

Thompson & Morgans Hellebore Breeding Programme

The Lenten rose, Helleborus x hybridus, brings colour to the garden at a period when there is little else in flower. They now come in a wide range of colour and forms, developed over decades of breeding by hellebore enthusiasts. Elizabeth Strangman had a key influence to shift the breeding from clones towards seed strains. In the past hellebores were mainly available as divisions from named clones, making them rare, expensive and often weak or virused. Elizabeth started cross pollinating chosen parents, selecting the best descendants and carrying on refining the strain year after year until all plants are virtually identical to each other. This way large numbers of vigorous seedlings can be produced and guaranteed to be all the same colour even before they flower.

Thompson & Morgan inherited Elizabeth’s breeding program when she retired. Since then we have been expanding the colour range and released the first 100 % double flowered strain from seed, the ‘Washfield Doubles’. Eventually the mixture will become available as separate colours. Gardeners are often disappointed at the nodding flowers and having to lift them up to see the colour inside. We are selecting for short peduncles so the flowers face outward, but hellebores should not have upward facing flowers, otherwise one rain shower can easily fill and spoil the sepals. We are working hard on reducing the time it takes from germination to first flowering: This usually takes two years but now many of our plants flower after just one season. Another goal is to get Lenten roses to flower earlier in the season and for a longer time. They normally flower from the end of January up to March, but some selections are flowering as early as November and up to the end of April! Many other factors are taken into account during the selection process, from plant vigour, floriferousness, disease resistance, flower shape and symmetry, clarity of colour up to the foliage characteristics. Each year only around 100 plants out of the 15000 grown to flower are kept to improve the Washfield seed strains.

A seemingly insignificant trait, the colour of the nectaries, has in fact important breeding consequences. In single flowers, dark or golden nectaries give a contrasting ‘eye’. When singles are crossed with doubles, the nectaries can become petaloid and create the so called ‘anemone-flowered’ hellebores. These have an exquisite central ruff of small petals, pleated like a ballerina’s tutu. The anemone flowered hellebores are the most beautiful but also most difficult to breed. In the future it will be possible to get true bicolour anemone flowered types, with light sepals highlighted by a dark central ruff.

Rarer still is the interspecific hybrid between the Christmas rose, H. niger and the Lenten rose, H. x hybridus. This cross is very difficult to make and few seedlings survive. The resulting hybrid is extremely vigorous, floriferous and sterile. It flowers early with outfacing blooms like H. niger, but unlike it, is unfussy and will survive many years on neglect. Just imagine this in double or anemone flowered form!

Hellebores thrive in most soils provided you add some humus at the planting time. A gently sloping bank is the ideal spot to plant them; it provides natural drainage and gives a good vantage point to observe the flowers without bending down. To cut or not to cut? So the plants get as much energy as possible from photosynthesis for future flowers, cut as little leaves as you can, unless you want to showcase the emerging flowering stems. The best practice is to cut only dead or diseased leaves, so they do not contaminate new ones. Prevent aphids as they can spread viruses.

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