I can’t think of any genus more transformed by careful breeding over the last thirty years, here in Australia, than the genus Helleborus.
The plants we had here – that we’d always had – were good. Generally known as Helleborus x orientalis (but now more correctly labelled H. x hybridus), they were mostly white or a slightly dirty (but somehow appropriately and effectively dirty) plum-pink, and were virtually immortal, thriving under deciduous trees with little or no additional water. They had a tendency to self-sow at a modest, convenient rate, providing any extra plants we might have needed. Their only really annoying characteristic was a propensity to sulk for a year or two, if you dug them up to divide them.
But now….now they’re a different thing altogether. The colour-range is stupendous, including clear baby pinks, whites, rubies, burgundies, blacks, ash-greys, brilliant yellows, apricots, and tropical-looking mangos. Nearly all are available in singles or doubles, and remarkable degrees of spotting. They’ve been so transformed that they’re almost unrecognisable.
In Australia, this remarkable genus-makeover is almost entirely the work of one man – Peter Leigh, of Post Office Farm Nursery in Woodend, Victoria. Having been inspired by the ground-breaking book ‘The Gardeners Guide to Growing Hellebores’, which took all super-keen gardeners by storm back in 1993 (rarely have I wanted a book so badly, having laid eyes on a copy, nor waited for it so eagerly), Peter set out to breed his own plants.
Peter is the perfect character to orchestrate such a breeding program – discerning, disciplined, systematic, creative, tenacious.
From the start, knowing the severe limitations of creating highly desirable clones that could only be propagated by slow division, he worked towards developing really pure, predictable seed strains, so that he could sell pre-flowered plants, confident that any one of them would be a very good to excellent representative of its type, whether picotee (petals (actually sepals)) edged in a fine line of differing colour, or reverse picotee (sepals edged in a paler colour), or spotted, or double, or whatever the desired characteristic of the group.
Whenever I visit I embarrass myself by being totally sucked in by the novelties – and they’re everywhere – some of them pictured here. In my most recent visit – last Sunday – I stood there, surrounded by his heavily blooming and perfectly grown stock plants, not knowing which way to look, and asked what his current breeding goals were – which one of these crazy, totally implausible plants was indicative of his latest genetic obsession? He quietly and humbly pointed out that while he likes playing with a few new ideas, what he’s most committed to, and is always working towards, is purifying the seed strains that he has already developed.
It’s the answer of the measured grown-up to the over-excited kid. And it’s exactly why he’s so good at what he does.