by Marge Talt ( mtalt(at)clark.net
This week, I've got a special treat for you. Graham Birkin, a hellebore breeder in the UK, has lent me slides of some of his plants to share with you. I wasn't going to use them all, but I couldn't decide what not to show you! So, there are a lot of them, and I've made some a bit larger than usual; please be patient while they load.
Hybridizing plants is pretty easy, bees and other insects do it all the time. But hybridizing with a goal in view is another matter. Breeding hellebores for specific qualities is a time-consuming and painstaking process. You need patience, good records and space to grow on your seedlings; and you need a strong constitution, capable of rigorous selection of only those plants meeting your criteria.
You can cross a white flower with a white flower and be pretty sure that about ninety percent of the resulting seedlings will have a white flower. This requires two good white flowered plants and hand pollination. That's what most commercial nurseries do in order to have the quantity of plants they need for sales. This isn't exactly breeding hellebores, although it is hybridizing them.
Graham Birkin does his hellebore hybridizing the old fashioned way as developed by Helen Ballard. Let him tell you.
"This involves learning the genetic strengths of individual plants so that you know which plant to use to develop a certain characteristic. Certain plants have recessive genes so to use them in hybridizing could lead to smaller flowers, uneven flowers, or even plants that just slowly fade away. Sometimes this is a price worth paying in the long term quest to get a good colour - once you have the colour you can then try and breed in the shape. Obviously this takes a long time. I hand pollinate the plants in Feb., sow the seed in May and 2 - 3 years later get the first flowers. It is possible to see potential at the first flower stage but true colour and shape are not certain until the second flowering year."
It also means having the patience of Job. Even knowing as much as possible about your plants doesn't always mean that the resulting crosses will be worth a hoot. Graham told me that once he had to discard 1,000 plants (three year's work!) since none of the crosses were worth keeping.
That takes more stomach than I have! But, this kind of ruthless selection is imperative if you are working toward worthwhile plants. Different breeders are looking for different traits. Graham breeds for color. Unlike some, he has no objection to pointed sepal (petal) flowers. In nature, the color range in different species includes greens, ivories to pale yellow, whites, pinks - from pale to reddish-purple. Graham has taken nature's palette, and with knowledge, dedication and just plain good luck, created some marvelous flowers.
Graham Birkin's Hellebores
On with the show! I want them all!