All Hellebores Great and Small

My first exposure to hellebores was likely in the 1970’s. Though gardening consumed every available moment and most of any available cash I had for plants, there were no hellebores in my yard. I could buy five other plants for the money it took to buy one hellebore. My Mom, on the other hand, being much more solvent than I, had an ever expanding collection. At first, I could not understand her fascination with them. Topping out at a foot or 16″ tall, it took 5 years to grow on a decent sized clump. The foliage was certainly attractive, but the flowers left quite a bit to be desired. Enjoying them was a necessarily interactive experience. The flowering stems were lax and thin. To enjoy them, one needed to bend over to half one’s height, pick up the drooping bloom, and turn it skyward. As pictured above, helleborus x hybridus varieties of old provided the gardener an excellent view of the flower’s backsides. The one flower looking at you was a bloom that I cut, and laid face up on the plant. Not that the back wasn’t beautiful, it just did not provide the thrill of a full front view. As in, face to face.

The flowers were about the size of a quarter or half dollar. They were broad and weighty compared to the stem. No wonder the flowers were nodding. Another more compelling reason for their down facing blooms is practical. Upfacing large flowers can suffer damage from rain and rot, that could interfere with the production of seed. The stalk attached to the flower is known as the peduncle. This word itself suggests something robust and strong, but the stems of these hellebore flowers could not have held a flower in the upright position. It always amused my Mom when I would lie down on the ground next to one of her plants, and try to peer up at the flowers. The colors of the flowers were equally as unsatisfying. The thin petals of the white flowered strains were a dirty white, most likely due to their translucence. The reds were overlaid with green, and the pinks were anemic.

My Mom, however, was delighted with all of them. In retrospect, I attribute that to her taste, experience and sophistication in regards to garden plants. I had none of that going for me, in my 20’s. She thought her hellebores possessed a quiet and diminutive beauty. She organized an entire garden around them, and that moment when their blooming would kick off the spring season. There is something to be said for old fashioned flowers, whose size, stature, substance and color has not been tinkered with by a breeder. There are those who prefer the old fashioned feverfew to their button style double counterparts. Single flowered hollyhocks are so beautiful. The double flowered varieties look alarmingly like tissue papers suitable for a parade float.

The irregularly blushing coloration of this Royal Heritage strain hellebore flower is charming, not arresting. I was lucky to have a single flower, by virtue of the support provided by the flower bud below it, face out. Otherwise, I would have no idea what the flowers look like. What a shy group this is!

This rose pink seed grown hellebore from the same strain has small rather pointed petals that do not overlap so much. This particular plant has more side facing flowers than nodders, so it is easier to enjoy.

This is one of my favorites from this old fashioned group. I picked the flower, and set it on the ground to photograph it. This is a good photograph for identifying the flower parts. What appear to be pink petals are actually modified petals known as sepals. Most flowers drop their petals one they are fertilized. But these pink sepals will age to green, and persist on the plant for many weeks. A group of sepals form a calyx, the purpose of which is to protect the flower, and its reproductive parts. The actual flower is comprised of short petals that have rolled up, closed, and formed tubes, or nectaries. In this picture, the nectaries are those green crescent shaped forms that encircle all the reproductive parts. The stamens, or male reproductive parts, have anthers at the top, which hold the pollen. They appear as cream white dots in the above picture. The female reproductive parts, the pointy shaped carpels, have not grown out yet. When they do, they will grow and enlarge into what will become the seeds. The sex lives of plants is complex and fascinating-and requires the assistance a third disinterested party, as in insects, wind, or bees.

The newer cultivars of hellebores are quite astonishing.  I still remember the first time I saw a yellow flowered hellebore. I could hardly believe it was real. The above pictured hellebore from the Spring Promise series is called Sally.  It is a robust grower. As many flowers face out to the side as face down. Outfacing flowers are still able to shed rain water, limiting rot in the center of the flower. More flowers than not have 7 sepals, as opposed to the old fashioned 5. There is a good bit of overlap to the sepals, resulting in color that is richer and more brilliant.

The size of the flowers is considerable larger than those on my older hybrids. 15 flowers of this size gives the plant the impact of a small shrub.

Also a member of the “Spring Promise” series is this named variety, Connie. The white sepals have plenty of substance, meaning they are thick enough to read bright white. The spots are a striking visual plus. I am sure there is every bit of 150 stamens on this flower. There are so many, the nectaries are almost completely obscured. It has an exotic, rather than charming appearance.

From the hybridizing efforts of Marietta Byrnes, her “Winter Jewels” strain known as Jade Star” features green flowers with maroon red markings and picotee edging. The original plants in her strain have large areas of plum and wine red over the green, but seedlings can vary considerably from the original.

This is another version of Jade Star. Since hellebores from a strain do not come true to seed, it is best to pick them in flower so you know exactly what you will get. That said, I like every version of this moody colored hellebore strain I have seen.

The double flowered hellebores are indeed showstopping. This particular plant is from the helleborus x hybridus Winter Dreams series “Elegance White”. In all the years I have had it, it has increased only modestly. But as reluctant as it is to put on weight, it is breathtaking, and well worth the wait.

This double pink hellebore is also from the Spring Promise series, and is called “Frilly Kitty”. 7 years post planting, it is spectacular in size and bloom this year. Hellebores of any genetic background increase slowly, so the cost of good sized plants is considerable.  This cultivar is vigorous and healthy, and gets no care from me besides supplemental water when it is dry. This is breathtaking example of what modern hybridizing has achieved.  Is it better? I like having a range of cultivars both great and small.

I cannot remember your name, but I am happy to be hosting you in my garden.

The 2020 Hellebores

The hellebores do not have to compete very hard for my attention in the spring. They are just about the only perennial game in town come late March and on into April. I will admit I am out there searching for signs of them when the ground is still frozen solid. I am an enthusiast, yes. They are well worth the wait. Helleborus X hybridus-a group thought to be made up of 14 to 16 other species – is quite hardy in my zone. Other species and their hybrids, notably helleborus niger, are a little touchy for me, but well worth a try. The large leathery leaves populate sturdy compact plants, and are a rich dark glossy green. That foliage not only makes for a fine overscaled ground cover in shadier places throughout the growing season, it persists well into our winter. They prefer compost laden soil, regular moisture, and part shade conditions. That said, I have grown them successfully in full sun, and in deep shade. They are most obliging.

In an especially wet year, I will see some botrytis, but in general, the plants are healthy and hardy. They are slow to put on weight, but once they do, they bloom profusely. They are very long lived. I have more than a few that are better than 20 years old.  I hear they are not so happy to be divided, so I have stayed away from that. Their bloom story is equally as interesting.  The thick juicy flowering stalks emerge first in the spring. Each flower is surrounded by leaflets. The flower shapes and colors, given intense hybridizing efforts all over the world, are incredibly diverse. Black, white, green, red, yellow and pink are all represented in varying shades and combinations of shades. Flowers can be single, anemone flowered, or double. In my opinion, the single flowered varieties are the most persistent and longest lived. The doubles with huge petal counts are fascinating, but the singles are my favorite. A green flowered single is my favorite of all.

Once the bloom period is well underway, the plants send up new foliage. The foliage pictured above is the remains of the previous year’s leaves. In a perfect world, I would cut off the previous season’s leaves just prior to the flower stalks emerging. Should I miss that moment, I try to wait until the flowers are well out of the ground. Few gardening mishaps are as frustrating as cutting off soon to flower stalks by accident. I have done it more times than I care to remember.

What you are seeing above is a trim long past due. The scraggly brown leaves of yesteryear are not adding much to the flowering stalks coming on. David usually cuts the old foliage off, as it would require that I leap over the boxwood hedge to get within snipping distance.  At 6′ 3″ tall, he is able to step over. But he is at home in his own garden, tending to his own hellebores now, as well he should be. So I am stuck with a view, and not a presence. As it doesn’t bother me enough to risk getting there, I am intrigued to see how the plants will handle the chaos.

Several weeks in, it does not appear that any of these flowering stalks are hanging back or hindered by the lack of a cleanup. They actually seem quite indifferent to the mess. This is a rather unattractive moment, but it does illustrate the the process of nature cycling from one growing season to the next. Were I to try to get in there now and try to scoop up all the detritus, I feel every plant would be glaring at me. Years ago a friend with an extraordinary wildflower garden told me she worked very hard to see that her garden was undisturbed by her presence as much as possible. She limited her house keeping to the removal of downed limbs and branches, and all but a reasonable layer of oak leaves in the fall. Her garden was stunning. Large drifts of the same plant took hold in those spots optimal for their success. It had a relaxed and natural appearance as it was minimally and judiciously tended. Plants that have been fussed with too much have that look about them.

This area will surely test that hands off experiment. This first of this group of hellebores were planted decades ago. Should one succumb, I plant another. It is a spot that I can readily reach. But I am interested to see what will come of a hands off approach.

This old clump of Royal Heritage strain will have lots and lots of flowers.  At this stage, it is hard to imagine this plant occupying every bit of four square feet. As they are planted on the north side of a sizeable picea mucrunatum, they are slower to come on in the spring.

All of them seem to be putting forth fresh growth.

This stage is every bit as beautiful as the flowering stalks fully flushed out.

Is this a better look? I will soon have an alternate treatment available to look at.

It could be by the time this hellebore is at this particular stage, I will barely notice what did not get done.

 

Vernissage 2020

Eleven years ago, on April 1 of 2009, I published my very first Dirt Simple blog post, appropriately entitled “Vernissage”.The title of the post was my very loose interpretation of the French word that refers to openings. As much as it signaled the opening of my gardening season, it was a very special beginning for me. I published on this date the first journal style blog essay focused on garden and landscape design under the name of Dirt Simple. To date I have published 1716 essays. Some are good, some are OK. Some are fun, and others I hope are challenging. You decide. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of organizing my thoughts, and writing them down in some in some coherent form. Every moment that I have spent photographing gardens, landscape projects, and plants for this column has been time in the garden that has made me slow down, observe and reflect.  More recently, my posts are longer, and more detailed-and fewer. I write when I think I have something to say. The older I get, the less I have to say – which seems appropriate. I am vastly less certain of almost everything than I was when I was 30. To follow is a revisited, rethought, and revised version of my first post in 2009, annotated in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and today-April 1 of 2020. I must have been speechless in 2019-if you write, you know that happens. This date has another very special significance to me. April 1 of 1992 was Rob’s first day working with me. It has been a very engaging and productive 28 years. Yes, we have had our rough moments, but I take a great deal of pride in what we have created. I have a respect for him that continues to grow. I feel sure there will be more to come from the two of us.

Strictly speaking, the French word vernissage refers to the opening of an art exhibition.  I learned the word 23 years ago from a client with whom I had a history spanning better than 25 years. She was an art collector. Our conversation over the years spoke to the value of nurturing long term interests and commitments in the landscape.  I learned plenty from her, and from her garden, over the years. In the beginning, I planted flowers for her. Our relationship developed such that I began to redesign, reshape, and replant her landscape.  She was passionately involved in the disposition of every square foot of her 8 acre property. The years flew by, from one project to the next.  I have favorite projects. An edited collection of fine white peony cultivars dating from the late 19th and early 20th century was exciting to research and plant. A grove of magnolia denudata “Ivory Chalice” came a few years later. Another year we completely regraded all of the land devoted to lawn, and regrassed. I learned how to operate a bulldozer, I so wanted to be an intimate and hands on part of the sculpting of the ground. We had a relationship that I still treasure.

There were disasters to cope with, as in the loss of an enormous old American elm. Deterring deer became nearly a full time job. Nature is like that. As mean as it is giving. Spring would invariably bring or suggest something new. All these years later, there is a body of work generated by the two of us that I call the landscape – that living and breathing discussion about nature that draws every gardener closer to the knowledge that life is equal parts mystery and miracle.

She sold this property some years ago.  Change comes sooner or later to people and gardens alike. The landscape of her new and much smaller property was a design challenge for the both of us.  That new landscape was all about a conversation about letting go of what had brought her so much pleasure, and embracing the challenges posed by starting over. Making that move with her from one large landscape to a city lot landscape was just plain hard. That transition was not pretty for either of us. I am sorry to say that we broke up over the stress of this move. I am sure she felt just as bad about it as I did. I ran in to her some years later. We talked up a storm, as if nothing untoward had ever happened. This treasured client passed away September 20, 2017, at the age of 86. It was more than hard for me to bid her farewell. I will never forget her. She encouraged me to be the best that I could be. She trusted my eye, and I loved hers. The following is in sincere regard, love, and respect for Marianne.

In a broader sense, vernissage might refer to any opening. The opening of the gardening season has a decidedly fresh ring to it.  I routinely expect the winter season to turn to spring,  and it always does, sooner or later. Every spring opening has its distinctive features. Some springs are notable for their icy debut. Grape hyacinths and daffodils ice coated and glittering and giant branches crashing to the ground-this is not so unusual. Snow can be very much a part of the landscape in mid April. This year is a challenge like no other to all. Gardening at its most distilled is in many ways a solitary pursuit. What gets shared post that high voltage one on one relationship is a wealth of information, interest, discussion and passion that I believe will transmit a love for the garden from one generation of gardeners to the next.

I usually associate spring with the singing of the birds. I hardly noticed the singing this year, until this past week. The cold that has been reluctant to leave means there has been much more anticipation than experience.  I see a few small signs now. The snowdrops are in bloom, but they look bedraggled. The magnolia stellata is still silent. Perhaps there will be no flowers this year, but perhaps there will. To add to, revise, or reinvent my relationship with nature is a challenge I usually anticipate. It has been hard to rev up this time around. This persistent bad news reduces my spirit to a puddle on the ground. A client suggested yesterday that February had been steady at 30 degrees, and March seems to be in a a chilly and threatening holding pattern that could last for months. How well said. But truth be told, spring is finally within sight, in a chilly and miserly sort of way. Everywhere I see fat buds, waiting for that signal to proceed. I have hellebores in bloom. Thanks to the heavens for them. Spring is on the way.

Much of what I love about landscape design has to do with the notion of second chances. I have an idea. I put it to paper. I do the work of installing it.  Then I wait for an answer back. This is the most important part of my work-to be receptive to hearing what gets spoken back. The speeches come from everywhere-the design that could be better here and more finished there. The client, for whom something is not working well, chimes in. The weather, the placement and planting final exam test my knowledge and skill. The land whose form is beautiful but whose drainage is heinous teaches me a thing or two about good planning. The sky and the ground is in the process of opening up.  The singing comes from everywhere. I make changes, and then more changes. I wait for this to grow in and that to mature. I stake up the arborvitae hedge gone over with ice, and know it will be years or more-the hoped for recovery. I might take this out, or move it elsewhere.  That evolution of a garden seems to have ill defined beginnings, an uncertain mid ground, and an equally ill defined end.

VERNISSAGE (4)This spring will see an average share of burned evergreen and dead shrubs. The winter cold and wind was neither here nor there. I am still wearing winter clothes. But no matter what the last season dished out, sooner or later, I get my spring. I can compost my transgressions. The sun shines on the good things, and the not so good things, equally.  It is my choice to take my chances, and renew my interest. The birds singing this first day of April l means it is time to take stock.

I can clean up winter’s debris. My eye can be fresh, if I am of a mind to be fresh.  I can coax or stake what the heavy snow crushed.  I can prune back the shrubs damaged by the voles eating the bark.  I can trim the sunburn from the yews and the boxwood.  I can replace what needs replacing, or rethink an area all together. Three years ago I removed 100 Hicks yews that have been in my garden for close to 20 years. They have been ailing for years in a way that defied any remedy. I now have 60 feet of planter boxes, that will be mine to plant for a third season. It is unclear when I will be able to plant, but I have hope.  I can look over what I did the first time, and make changes. I can wait. Being a gardener, I know all about waiting.  A pair of new arbors installed over a year ago hold roses, clematis and Dutchman’s Pipe. I see buds on those plants. I can sit in the early spring sun, and soak up the possibilities. I can sculpt ground. I can move all manner of soil, plant seeds, renovate, plant new.  What I have learned can leaven the ground under my feet-if I let it.  Spring will scoop me up.  Does this not sound good?

April 1 marked 28 years that Rob and I began working together, and 24 years that the shop has been bringing our version of the garden to all manner of interested gardeners. That relationship endures, and evolves.  Suffice it to say that Detroit Garden Works is an invention from the two of us that reflects the length and the depth of our mutual interest in the garden. In 1996, our shop was a one of a kind. We plan to keep it that way. No matter how hard the winter, no matter how hard the news, once we smell spring in the air, we stir.

Our shop is in lockdown, like countless other garden businesses – as well we should be. We will meet again over the garden when it is safe for all of us to do so. In the interim, I would point out that spring is on the way, as usual. Just walk outside. You will see, smell, and hear it. As for the time being, persevere.

Detroit Garden Works March 31 2020

primula malacoides in bloom March 31, 2020

Rob planted a series of pots for spring a month ago. Of course he did. It’s spring.

From Nothing To Something

March is invariably the most desolate month of all in my garden. Everything sits in stony silence. The passing of the snow reveals a landscape sullen from months of cold. The straw colored grass is thin. Muddy dirt pools in those places where the grass succumbed. The stoic evergreens that have been unable to absorb water all winter long via their roots sport foliage that is still that wintry shade of black green. They will hide the damage wrought by desiccating winter winds until the air temperatures warm up. The trees are budded, but tightly budded. It is not time yet for the signs of spring to emerge. It is the time of the revelation of the effects of the winter season.  There are those who think the landscape and garden sleeps beneath a thick blanket of snow. Not so. The winter is actually a pitched battle for survival with winners, losers, and the compromised.

It is dry enough to walk the garden now. Everywhere, the remains of what is dead, shed and scuffed up is on display. The reveal of the landscape post the worst of the winter, come March, is a rude one. Wince-worthy. The rabbits chewed every rose right down to the ground. Of course they did. A fledgling paeonia Ostii was similarly chewed, despite being surrounded with bamboo stakes. Every wispy dried up bit of organic trash has been blown around and deposited somewhere in the yard – both high and low. . The pachysandra is laid over and down, as if it had been trampled by a lawn roller. There is a winter’s worth of street trash to pick up.

Desolation is the landscape word of this March day. It is hard to imagine that anything will ever be different. It is more difficult to imagine the garden thriving. I am a working gardener, in the most literal sense of the word. I respond to what nature provides. I am not in charge, nor am I the least bit unhappy about that roll. But March in my zone is dreary indeed.

I would not be capable of planning, orchestrating or even entirely comprehending that complex mechanism by which the winter season comes to an end. My knowledge of the process is certainly better than it was 50 years ago, but I am routinely taken by surprise. What we call the force of nature is just that. Formidable, inexplicable – magical. I know that in a month’s time, this view will have taken on an entirely different appearance than what I see now. What is skeletal now will have a more juicy and lively look.

I feel confident in saying that every gardener endures the winter as best they can. The read, and order seeds, and plan for the gardening season to come. They clean tools, look out the windows, and wait. I suspect they are as frazzled as I, forced to be an unwilling witness to the last gasp of winter. But as unpleasant as March can be, there is the sure knowledge the winter season will run out of steam, and fizzle. And then there will be signs of spring. Though we have had very moderate temperatures the past few weeks, there is a forecast for night temperatures in the twenties the next few nights. March and April are known for their tantrums. But the bigger picture calls for an end to winter. As it has been my experience that spring always arrives, sooner or later.

The first call in my yard is always adonis amurensis. It is astonishing how early this perennial emerges, grows and blooms-in one fell swoop.

It is painfully slow to multiply for me, but I would not do without it. They demand nothing in the way of care.  Shortly after blooming, they go dormant until the following late winter. I have time to watch and marvel how it emerges weeks ahead of other plants. That yellow flower beats back the late winter blues.

The snowdrops are a late winter favorite. Beloved in all of its forms and hybrids by galanthophiles and informal fans all over the globe, they breach the soil still crusty with frost, and bloom profusely. True to their name, they shrug off a late snow as if that were nothing. They transplant most readily in their green form. Once happy, they multiply and seed with abandon.  Any gardener who reads here knows I am a fan of hellebores. They are, in my opinion, the perfect perennial.  Thick glossy foliage persists in its green state until late in the winter. The flowers emerge on leafless stalks in April, and bloom for a very long time. The green remains of the flowers can persist in the garden well in to June. The current years leaves will emerge after the flowers.  With proper moisture, these 18″ tall plants grow into very large clumps. They live for decades, and do not require dividing to bloom profusely.  I leave the flower heads be, in order to encourage seedlings.

The flowering stalks emerge early from the clusters of last years leaves. They are a welcome sign that spring is on the way.

It will not be that long before the hellebores reach this height and breadth. The time will come when every gardener will be fully engaged in spring, and the memory of the March landscape will fade.

There will be plenty to enjoy indoors-pots of bulbs, and the cut stems of spring flowering perennials and flowering shrub branches while the weather outdoors is still uncomfortably cold.

As delicate as the flowers of Barnhaven primrose are, they are quite robust and hardy in Michigan gardens.

Grape hyacinths blooming in the early patchy grass make the inevitable dandelions look great.

This spring window box from years ago-full of daffodils, parsley, annual phlox, alyssum and violas-is a reminder that as always, spring will have its turn

It’s coming.