Hellebores & More at Heronswood Nursery: A Reminiscence

By: Demetra Bowles

Demitra Bowles Lathrop holds a degree in English literature from University of California at Berkeley. She has served as editor…

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A flurry of shopping, with carts full of hellebores, at a Heronswood Nursery Hellebore Garden Open. Photographs by Dan Hinkley

A flurry of shopping, with carts full of hellebores, at a Heronswood Nursery Hellebore Garden Open. Photographs by Dan Hinkley

After her nut-walk had been planted for some twelve years, Gertrude Jekyll (the English plantswoman who loosened the strict Victorian bedding out scheme popular in her day for a style more in tune with nature) noted in Wood and Garden (1926) that she had filled “one border from end to end” with a sweep of “Lent Hellebores,” while the other was planted with drifts of “the Corsican and the native kinds.” What she referred to in the romantic terms coined by their rose-like form and Lenten period bloom—Lent hellebore or Lenten rose—we now call simply garden hybrids (Helleborus x hybridus); they are no longer considered to be merely forms of H. orientalis, and some have little of that species in their parentage. The Corsican hellebore Jekyll grew was our H. argutifolius, native to Corsica and Sardinia, while the native kinds refer to H. foetidus and H. viridis. The space she chose to house her collection—that mid-ground between wood and garden, the wild and the civilized, a shady grove of trees—proved hospitable for the hellebores. When the sun was most strong through the summer, her nut trees lent shade to temper the heat; in winter’s dim light, they graciously shed their leaves.

Gardeners treasure the subtle beauty of hellebores for their choice blooms from Christmas on, when little else flowers. The open, buttercup-shaped flowers come in a range of hues, including green, pink, plum, slate, and white—some more saturated than others, and many fancifully speckled or picoteed. These long-lasting blooms complement the intricate structure of the green foliage and lend a presence in the winter garden, where they fill a real void.

Easy to grow shade plants, hellebores suit both woodland and garden, and, as Ms Jekyll deftly illustrated, those areas in between. As members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), hellebores prefer moister conditions than overly dry ones. Shade suits them, be it full shade (provided some light ekes through) to partial and dappled shade. Their preference for shade, with a few exceptions, adds greater allure: what gardener has not fussed over a bare darkened spot in the garden and longed for a plant to grow there?

Relics of the Tertiary period who were “later overwhelmed by the Ice Age,” hellebores went on to make appearances in areas “of the eastern Alps, the Balkan, and in the East,” and happily thrive today in many countries. The sturdy nature of this “old group of plants” makes them valuable garden subjects.1 Some thrive with little care, so long as their soil—preferably moist and loamy, amended with lime and leaf mold or other organic matter—and exposure suits them. What keeps them on the gardener’s radar screen is their stature as well-behaved, mostly evergreen plants, long-lived, with varied garden uses, be it in borders, massed around the base of trees, or along walls or shrubbery edges. Their medieval use as a talismanic shield to ward off evil spirits, witches, and madness may add a note of comfort. Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) frequently was planted near the house for “it was believed that no evil spirit would enter a dwelling near which these plants were grown.”2

Foliage of Helleborus x sternii contrasting with the foliage of Hacquetia epipactis

Foliage of Helleborus x sternii contrasting with the foliage of Hacquetia epipactis

A Pilgrimage North

All of these attributes led me to make the pilgrimage to see the hellebore collections and to meet the collectors and breeders at Heronswood Nursery in Kingston, Washington, on the Kitsap Peninsula. For many years, Heronswood held a “Hellebores & More” Garden Open to celebrate these horticultural treasures, unveiling new hybrids and opening their gardens to explore. (The admission price benefited the Elisabeth Miller Horticulture Library at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture.)

I was enthralled with the nursery, the gardens, the programs, and the people; one friend attending called the event “apocalyptic.” Sadly, what began as a chronicle of that adventure, and an entreaty to fellow hellebore junkies to make the same visit, must now be merely a reminiscence. Heronswood, as we knew it, is no more. The Burpee Seed Company, who purchased Heronswood from founders Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones, has closed the nursery and moved the entire operation to their growing grounds in Pennsylvania.

As I planned for my February 2006 trip, my husband checked Seattle weather reports and reminded me to “be sure to pack your mittens” and “be careful driving at night, in case there’s ice on the road.” Both turned out to be helpful pointers. The trek to Heronswood from San Francisco involved a flight, a car rental, and a ferry crossing, all of which stoked my excitement. Everything needed to be aligned for me to reach my destination; they were, and I did. The road to the nearby Poulsbo motel was icy, and the paper-thin walls afforded me little sleep. Nevertheless, early Friday morning, I was set for a garden adventure, and that is exactly what I got.

Heronswood staff (nicknamed the “Heronistas”) plotted the weekend’s activities well. The primary reason gardeners made the trek to the nursery was for plants, and there was a flurry of activity by annual die-hards to get the choicest ones. People familiar with the routine and the Pacific Northwest climate dressed in fleece pullovers and woolens to warm themselves, as they swarmed through the greenhouses and softly clucked over plants. Yellow-blossomed hellebores were scarce and quickly snapped up. They passed me by, as their smiling new owners whisked them to the “Sold” area. One greenhouse after another, all well stocked with healthy hellebore specimens and a wealth of companion plants, demanded slow and careful study. A quick stop at the coffee and tea canteen every so often to warm chilled hands provided a break, but the focus was clearly on the plants.

Kellie Dawson, a former Heronista, propagator, and professional horticulturist, drove up from the Oregon coast to volunteer at these events and became my tour guide. She led me through the various greenhouses and helped me find some plants of Helleborus multifidus var. hercegovinus, a cornerstone species with serrated, heavily dissected leaves and small yellow green blossoms that flutter like butterflies; this species has been much used in Heronswood’s breeding program. A cultivar with well-rounded sepals, deeply saturated with color (H. x hybridus ‘Heronswood Red’) was next on my list, followed by a smoky green H. purpurascens hybrid for a friend.

A search for the Balearic Islands’ native, Helleborus lividus—a beguiling, pale silvery- leafed plant with flushed mauve undersides and reputed to have a faint violet scent—took me to Jason Scott, an active propagator in Heronswood’s program. He showed me a greenhouse packed with hellebores flagged with bright colored yarns depicting hybrid crosses in the works. While many of the parent plants in Heronswood’s eight-year, controlled breeding program came from well-regarded growers both here and abroad (Helen Ballard, John Massey, Charles Price and Glenn Withey, Elfie Rahr, and Elizabeth Strangman, to name a few), Dan Hinkley expanded the nursery’s breeding program with species that he and his associates collected in the wild, and distinguished the nursery with many new forms that they introduced to the home gardener.

Helleborus x ericsmithii dusted with snow

Helleborus x ericsmithii dusted with snow

Well-bred Hellebores 

Jason briefly brought me up to speed on Heronswood’s program. Along with the rest of the team, he focused on “hard-to-do colors,” especially pure white and yellow. Combining Helleborus multifidus var. hercegovinus, treasured for its distinctive foliage, with the garden hybrids (H. x hybridus) has resulted in green, purple, and yellow flowers, green being the easiest to produce. Earlier in the program’s evolution, flower color had been paramount; vigor and disease resistance then took precedence. Work on double hellebores was continuing. Heronswood’s goals for its hellebore program paralleled those of England’s famed hellebore queen, Helen Ballard: “A clear, unstained colour, evenness in the shape of the flower with rounded, overlapping sepals of good size, and an upright habit combined with a healthy and vigorous growth was the measure for . . . selection.”3

Dan Hinkley stands as a formidable force in horticultural circles, where his lifelong quest for plants, gathering them “one by one,” led him to explore the globe. Dan shared his knowledge with us in two lectures repeated each day of the weekend: “The Genus Hellebore” and “Gardening with Hellebores.”  The first offered two useful categories for considering the genus Helleborus: stemmed (caulescent) and stemless (acaulescent). Stemmed species distinguish themselves by their clumps of sturdy stems supporting evergreen leaves and terminal flower racemes, blooming early in the season. After flowering, the stems can be  cut to the ground to encourage the sprouting  of fresh new growth, which will flower the  following winter. Falling within this group  are H. argutifolius, H. foetidus, H. lividus, and  H. x sternii.

Stemless species produce leaves and flowers on separate stems arising directly from underground stems. Although the leaves may be either evergreen or deciduous, all of the stems can be cut down at the end of the growing season; new flowering stems will usually emerge first, followed by new leafy stems. Examples in this category are H. dumetorum, H. multifidus var. hercegovinus, H. orientalis, H. purpurascens, H. thibetanus, H. viridis, and H. x hybridus. To assure purity of the stock, Heronswood grew many of these species from seed collected from wild populations.

“Gardening with Hellebores” reviewed companion trees, shrubs, and perennials, which a tour of the extensive woodland garden revealed firsthand. Heronswood cleverly provided a one-stop shop, not only for hellebores, but for companionable plants to grow with them. There you could find the black snakeroot (Actaea racemosa) that Dan grew with his  garden hybrids; a form of the cuckoo flower (Cardamine) he grouped in his garden with Helleborus x nigercors and H. torquatus; or a Tibetan poppy (Meconopsis) similar to the one that accompanied his small colony of H. x sternii. All were made easier to purchase by precise greenhouse locations included in the lecture notes. Unable to resist the enticing images flashed on the projector screen, four-inch pots of Cardamine trifolia, Lilium nepalense, and various hepaticas weighted down the already full bags I carried back on the plane.

The Seattle Times reported that record winds, up to sixty miles per hour from a Canadian cold front, blew out power to 80,000 customers in the Puget Sound region on Friday night of my visit. One meteorologist forecast it as the coldest night of the year. Looking back, I realize that it scarcely mattered that Seattle was cold on the day of our visit. A common zeal for the quiet beauty of the hellebores warmed those lucky enough to participate.

Though Heronswood may have closed its gates in Kingston, other West Coast hellebore breeders continue to thrive. In Oregon alone, Gossler Farms (Springfield) sells the hybrids of Glenn Withey and Charles Price. Honeyhill Farms Nursery (Portland) and Russell Graham, Purveyor of Plants (Salem) continue their work. Also, Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne of Northwest Garden Nursery (Eugene) sponsor hellebore open days for the fine selections that they produce. All are open for business, and I’ll be hitting each one in coming years.

An array of garden hybrid hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus)

An array of garden hybrid hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus)

Preserving the Gardens  at Heronswood

The Pacific Northwest Horticultural Conservancy (PNHC) continues to make steady progress toward its goal of preserving the  gardens at the former Heronswood property in Kingston, Washington.

Efforts gained momentum this past fall with the formation of the PNHC board of directors and formal application for status as a non-profit, charitable organization. In addition, board members had productive visits with both George Ball, Jr, president of W Atlee Burpee & Company, and Hans Miller, the company’s chief financial officer. Mr Ball  has arranged for the interim maintenance of the garden.

Currently, the group is working with Kitsap County to determine the site changes required to make the gardens a true community-based, self-sustaining horticultural research and  education center. Ultimately, the center will serve gardeners and horticulturists from the region and around world, as well as students from institutions such as the University of Washington and Olympic College.

Volunteers are welcome! Fundraising  plans are underway. The PNHC Web site,  www.weloveplants.org, has the latest developments, information about the board, and ways to get involved in, or contribute to, the effort  to preserve the gardens at Heronswood.  We urge you to learn more by visiting the PNHC booth at events such as the Northwest Flower & Garden Show (February 14-18, 2007) or by writing to PO Box 1575, Kingston, WA 98346.

  1. Gisela Schmiemann and Josh Westrich, eds., Helen Ballard: The Hellebore Queen (Cologne, Germany: Edition Art and Nature, 1997), 14.
  2. Eleanor Sinclair Rohde, as quoted in The Hellebore  Queen, 115.
  3. Schmiemann, preface to The Hellebore Queen,  6.