by Marge Talt (mtalt(at)clark.net
Hellebore fever is relatively recent for me. Not that I haven't enjoyed those I've had for many years - I just hadn't crossed that threshold from liking them to being a bit nuts about them. It's an easy leap to make, these are such marvelous plants. Most of them are so easy to grow and burnish our gardens in the dreary days before Spring truly arrives.
More About Growing From Seed
As I mentioned in Part 1, I've had mixed success with my seed growing. My failures were due, I now know, to buying dry stored seed from a seed company. They, of course, want to sell seed, so they don't tell you that it is going to take a really long time for most of it to germinate, if it ever does, once it has been dry stored for more than a few weeks.
If you are growing hellebores, you have probably found self-sown seedlings (unless you're exceptionally tidy-minded and erase any seedlings the minute they appear in your borders). These are H. argutifolius seedlings coming up around the mature plants in Rolf van de Pavert's Netherlands garden. I like the determined child that poked itself right up through the leaf!
These self-sown children can be easily moved while still quite tiny and potted up. Those that end up in the crown of the parent plant need to be removed, whether they can be saved or not, so they don't create problems for the parent as they grow. One thing to remember about hellebore seedlings - never hold them by the stem, always use the leaves as a handle. The stems are quite sensitive and will bend and turn black where grasped, no matter how gently.
If you have access to fresh seed, sow it immediately for best results. If you obtain seed from an exchange, or other source, that does not arrive until fall, it is still best to sow it as soon as you get it. Under favorable circumstances, fresh hellebore seed (except that of H. niger and H. vesicarius) sown in summer will germinate before Christmas.
The mix in which you sow your seeds should be loose and free-draining with a high organic material content. Those of you in the UK can use John Innes seed compost. In the US, a good quality bagged compost especially for seeds will do. You may need to add extra grit, perlite or bark fines if it doesn't look like it will drain well.
You can use clay or plastic pots. A four inch (10.1 cm) minimum size is recommended in Rice and Strangman's Hellebores. Smaller pots tend to dry out faster. Personally, I prefer square plastic pots; they conserve space and don't dry out as fast as clay pots.
Grit is 1/8 inch (3.17 mm) crushed granite. It's sold in most locals as poultry starter size grit, available at feed and grain stores. Just make sure it's pure grit, with no added salts or calcium.
Fill your pots and level them off. Sharply tap the pot on a firm surface to settle it. You don't want to mash the mix down hard, because you want the mix to be airy; watering will firm it enough. The top of the mix should be about half an inch (1.27 cm) below the top of the pot. Space your seeds an inch apart. Don't crowd them; use a second pot if needed. Cover them with up to a half inch of grit. Water thoroughly. I water from above - gently - while others advocate watering from below. Whichever you select, make certain the contents are thoroughly wet, but not floating. Label the pot - you will not remember what's in it, no matter what you may think when sowing!
Pots Full of Seeds
Since hellebores want a warm period after sowing, put your pots outside in a shady spot near a hose bib; one that you pass frequently so you can check on them. Once watered, you do not want to let them dry out.
If you select clay pots, you will need to plunge them to just below their rims in a bed of grit or coarse sand. Otherwise, they will dry out too quickly in hot weather. Don't just dig a hole in the soil and put them in it - too many critters will get into them. If you use plastic pots, you can put them in a tray and set them just about anywhere that's level and bare. In my article on Growing From Seed, I describe making a screenwire cover for your flats to keep out debris and critters. It's easy to do and saves grief in the long run.
If you sowed your seed in summer, start checking your pots two or three times a week around October. Germinated seedlings can winter over in a cool green house or cold frame - with good ventilation and protection from severe frosts, slugs and mice. Shown is a pot of Rolf's H. foetidus
'Wester Flisk', just starting to germinate.
Germination of all seed takes a bit of time. This is the same pot a few weeks later. By the way, no matter what species, all hellebore seedlings look similar to these, with the oval seed leaf.
And this is the same pot of seedlings several weeks later (probably around March), starting to show their true leaves. At this point, you should prick out the seedlings and move them into individual three and a half inch (8.89 cm) pots. Use deep pots or at least four inch (10.16 cm) pots for both H. foetidus and H. argutifolius seedlings because they make a great deal of root growth quickly and need the room. Don't put off pricking out or you will risk root damage from which the seedlings may not recover.
Once transferred to individual pots, they can be put back in the cold frame or kept in the greenhouse until danger of frost is past when you can line them out in a protected place where you will remember to water them - they do not want to dry out. Once they have made good growth and their roots have filled their pots, they are ready to be planted in the garden. It has been my experience that hellebores do not make good long term pot plants; it's best to get them in the ground as quickly as you can once they are of a size to handle the rough and tumble world of the garden.
Now that you've got those seeds planted, let's talk about some of the species and cultivars I know or grow.
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