by Marge Talt ( mtalt(at)clark.net )
Leaves or Bracts
You may have noticed the floral and leaf bracts in the line drawing. These occur on the flowering stems and look like leaves, but are much simplified, undivided and smaller. They are properly termed bracts. The floral bract starts out life wrapping and protecting the flower buds. Other bracts form where the flower stem emerges.
Here, you can see the expanded floral bracts setting off the mature flower. The bud pictured above is emerging farther down the flower stem.
True leaves can vary quite a bit in size and shape; most having a fan-like appearance. Most are pedate (divided at the point where the leaf blade joins the stem and, in most, the divisions are divided again). For some, these divisions are narrow, giving a feathery appearance while for others the sections are larger with fewer divisions. Most of the garden hybrids and several species are evergreen, while some either go dormant in summer or in winter.
Most hellebores that you're likely to find are bone hardy, rated from USDA zones 3 to 10. H. argutifolius is the exception, being rated from zones 6 to 10. Other species, not so easily acquired in the US, that are likely to be tender or in need of protection in colder climates are H. lividis, H. vesicarius, H. multifidus subsp.hercegovinus, H. cyclophyllus and some forms of H. multifidus.
When Petals Aren't Petals
All flowers have petals, right? Well, sort of. Some, and hellebores are a perfect example, have showy sepals and inconspicuous or hidden real petals. In hellebores, the true petals are tubular nectaries; only seen on close investigation. The investigation is worth it in many cases, because these nectaries can be quite startling colors. I didn't realize just how bright a chartreuse the ones in my x hybridus cultivar were until I removed the sepals to show them. In some of the hybrids, they are enlarged and ruffled, giving a semi-double look to the flower.
You can see how the stamens wrap tightly around the carpels (ovaries) at first. As they age and pollen is released, the stand up and away until they fall off once fertilization takes place. The carpels swell as seed is formed, becoming quite prominent. In H. vesicarius, they are hugely inflated, dwarfing the flowers - a rather neat effect.
Since we're on the subject of pods and seeds, it's a good time to dispel a few myths you may have heard, such as "the seeds are hard to germinate", or "seed requires cold stratification", neither of which are true. Fresh seed germinates readily and seed from this genus wants a warm period once it has imbibed water, not a cold one.
Fresh seed, right off the plant is best, but seed can be harvested, dried and stored for a few weeks before planting. Dry stored longer than a few weeks, the seed goes into a state of dormancy from which it is very reluctant to wake up. This is the problem with most seed purchased from seed suppliers.
I've had some pots of x hybridus seed (in several tempting colors), purchased from a reliable source, sit doing nothing for over four years. The seed hasn't rotted; it's nice and plump and firm. But it also hasn't germinated. On the other hand, seed of H. foetidus 'Wester Flisk', purchased at the same time, from the same source, germinated readily and has been growing nicely in my garden, blooming and self-seeding madly for the past three years.
Ideally, you gather or acquire your seed in late spring and plant it by late June or early July. Fresh seed of H. argutifolius, given me by a friend, was planted last summer and germinated in November (it looks like 100%).
Next time, I'll tell you more about growing from seed as well as about growing some of the species and hybrids. I've got a lot of pretty neat photos from my garden and the gardens of friends to share with you. See ya' later.
If you find yourself getting hooked on hellebores, you must get The Gardener's Guide to Growing Hellebores by Graham Rice & Elizabeth Strangman (a noted breeder in her own right). Published by Timber Press, it's available online through them, or Amazon.com.