The Garden, February 1997

The name of Helen Ballard will be forever linked with the breeding of hellebores. This article is based upon extracts from Helen Ballard: The Hellebore Queen, written from her own notes, by Gisela Schmiemann, with photographs by Josh Westrich

A life with hellebores

IV SOME BREEDING EXPERIENCES

ENCOURAGED by the way my original plants grew in a dark north border, and by the multitude of seedlings they produced after some years, I began by crossing my original red and white plants. Crosses between these two colours have generally been the most vigorous. With one of the whites (which I acquired as 'Kochii' and renamed H. olympicus [H. orientalis subsp. orientalis]) I found that nearly always its good cup shape with overlapping petals was transmitted. Unfortunately the flower drooped on a very long pedicel. One of the reds, on the contrary, was very sturdy and upright. The other red had a very large flower with luxuriantly wavy petals, more of a violet in colour, but the size of flower caused it also to droop. Eventually I managed to combine the uprightness with the size of the overlapping petals. This was due to a strange, pink plant called No 59. This was so upright that the sepals were reflexed, not unlike a cyclamen, and the flower heads were joined to the stem with a very short pedicel. I kept it in a pot in the greenhouse, using it for pollinating pinks, reds, whites and darks. Planted out it grew into a huge and healthy plant [normally] with upright flowers. The next year it disappeared completely, evidently diseased. But it transmitted the upright position to some reds and, more importantly, the dark varieties.

It has always seemed to me a pity — the more so as I age — that one should have to bend down and turn up each hellebore flower to enjoy the colour of the inside, the golden centre, and the nectaries, which, beside the usual green, can be yellow, bronze, red and occasionally black. Other experiments with red hellebores were directed towards eliminating the mauve shades, producing a browner red, and also one with a warm pink component.

Perhaps it is easier to achieve quality in a white-flowered plant, as the goal of white is defined. [a flower] cannot be whiter than white, while in the other colours one is seeking for a probably unattainable target. Colours much more difficult to achieve are yellow or blue — colours only hinted at in the wild.

The whites, which appear to be [genetically] recessive, I grew at the end of a north border on their own, with the green hellebores, in a dark corner possibly less attended to by bees, and had some good true-to-colour plants from open crossings or possible natural selfings. 'Ushba' is my favourite white — it is robust, with strong light-coloured leaves, and large symmetrical saucer-shaped upright flowers of a pure white.

Breeding a yellow hellebore

My development of a hellebore which can truly be called 'yellow' has been slow. Many people interested in this genus had pointed out the desirability of this colour, and the potentialities of H. orientalis, H. odorus and H. cyclophyllus for its production. I felt that it would be a worthwhile addition to the range of hellebore colouring, but, although interested in hybridising, I made no attempts at a yellow colour until the late sixties.

In June 1965, on a visit to Yugoslavia, my husband and I collected a very beautiful green hellebore growing in thin deciduous woodland on a north-facing slope, very far north, in the Bohinj area. I planted it in the garden (where it still is) and, for lack of more definite information, called it H. odorus subsp. laxus [H. multifidus istriacus], following Merxmüller and Podlech in Feddes Repertorium and Tutin in Flora Europea. In cultivation it has tall leaves with mostly entire segments, and is rather lanky. The flowers are rounded and 3 m across on shortish upright flower stems; but I have never been able to detect any scent. Passing it when the sun was behind it, I was struck by the luxurious gold quality of the green, and by its 'petals' which were solid, yet transparent — it glowed. I decided to try crossing it to extract the yellow colour — but, with what should it be crossed?

Of suitable creamy-coloured material I had very little. I had a rather poor example of H. orientalis ('Kochii') in the garden, but decided against using it because the colour of this species is muddled. We had evidence of this in south Russia where the species is abundant. H. cyclophyllus resembled my plant too closely. Of possible hybrids 'Bowles's Yellow' was at the time unknown to me... My hope was to thin out the colour with something pure. So I crossed it with H. kochii [Kochii Group], which seemed to resemble H. olympicus as described by E B Anderson and Brian Mathew. The flower was pure white, very cup-shaped, drooping on a long pedicel. It had light coloured foliage, and flowered very early, sometimes in the autumn and intermittently through to spring. As a parent it transmitted the circular flower shape.

The seedlings I had from this cross were of a very pale but clear primrose, not very vigorous. Instead of trying to self them (which might have been a shortcut, but would probably have resulted in loss of vigour) I crossed them with a white orientalis hybrid of one called 'Hillier's White' of poor shape but very strong growing and H. olympicus again. Two of the best seedlings of this cross, Nos 36 and 9, I crossed with each other resulting in flowers of a slightly deeper colour. In my notebook of 1970 I wrote 'Odorus brings cream when crossed with white whites, and almost yellow crossed with cream'.

This was the moment when I began to notice loss of vigour and a tendency to botrytis. It was necessary to outbreed using something more vigorous. I used a cream seedling of unknown origin, No 188, which produced more robust and upright plants, one of which I showed at the RHS in 1980 under the name of 'Citron'. Its RHS Colour Chart rating was Mimosa Yellow 602/1. This was the best line for shape and colour — but other lines that branched off after the original cross, and which I failed to record, produced some flowers of deeper colour than 'Citron', but of poor shape. 'Ingot', which I also showed in 1980 matched up in the colour chart to Aureolin 3/1, and another unnamed yellow to Empire Yellow 603/1.

Since then I have tried to improve the stamina and habit of the 'yellows', and I have no doubt that with more selection and crossing a deeper colour could be achieved. But as each step takes two to three years to flowering, it is a very slow business. Parallel lines, of course, can speedup the process. My main aim was to breed not only a yellow hellebore, but one with a clear unstained colour (some still have too much green to qualify... ). The use of white orientalis in the first stages may have contributed to clear colour, as well as conferring the shapeliness of H. olympicus, which was coupled in some cases with the upright habit of the green parent. In spite of considerable and unavoidable inbreeding, the 'yellows' are not severely weakened, and they flower robustly at midwinter, or earliest spring with a miraculous brightness.

The dark-coloured hellebores have been extensively bred in the past and have given rise in more recent times to plants such as 'Black Knight', 'Ballard's Black' and some very dark hellebores of E B Anderson's raising. The dark colour seems to have come mainly through H. torquatus, and the dark and bluish Balkan hellebores... Unfortunately it [H. torquatus] is neither robust nor upright, and the flower, with a beautiful bloom on the outside, is green inside. After crossing it with a large darkish orientalis hybrid it acquired a uniform dark colour but it had a small drooping flower... A selfing of this plant showed loss of vigour. This necessitated crossing it back onto a robust dark hybrid again, of the same size. Finally it was possible to get a very dark flower on an orientalis plant with rather more upright habit, but I cannot claim a red success. Torquatus is also, I think, responsible for the blueness in some hellebores. Multifidus Serbicus, of which Torquatus may be an outstanding example, also contributes. And recently in a patch of H. dumetorum atrorubens [H. atrorubens] seedlings a very small flowered but clear pale blue form has turned up. There is green rather than purple in this blue, and it could lead to further developments towards a real blue. The 'blues' and darks which I have been trying for, were bedevilled by a red which shows when the flower is held to the light: and when the sun sets behind them in early spring, it seems to set all the dark and bluey forms on fire...

Obviously there must be limits to the variety one can have from such quiet-coloured plants. There will never be bright reds, or deep yellows, or gentian blues, only subdued but intense versions of them...

If I were to sum up my aims in trying to develop these plants, I would say that, [as well as] form, health and vigour are most important, even if upset in the halfway stage by the use... of rather dubious plants.

Equally important ... is the shape of the flower, with overlapping rounded petals, and an upright habit consistent with the greatest possible increase in size. Finally l have attempted to extend the range of flower colour.., aiming at purer colours. I feel convinced that most colours can be further improved, and the material for these improvements is lying in wait somewhere to be noticed and extracted.

Gisela Schmiemann holds Helen Ballards collection of hellebores and compiled this book from her personal notes.

HELEN BALLARD'S HYBRIDS

A complete alphabetical register of Helen Ballard's named plants with the first year of sale. Those marked* are listed in the current edition of The RHS Plant Finder