The Dressing up and Dumbing Down of Hellebores

Hellebores in bowl

Hellebore orientalis (now x hybridus) forms floating in a bowl

I bet you’re thinking ‘What can she mean’? Well for now let’s just say that I am becoming increasingly alarmed at some of the hybrid Hellebores being produced and the lack of information given at point of sale, mostly from Garden Centres. I shall expand on this later but will begin with how I came to learn more about the more well known species (and hybrids) within this genus.

I was seduced by Hellebores quite early on in my gardening journey, some 28 years ago, mostly by Helleborus orientalis also commonly known as the Lenten rose (now called x hybridus a name which I think too confusing so am sticking to orientalis although this is quite a collective name) .  I was fortunate to be not far from small nursery producers who were doing great things with them by producing hybrid strains in the early 90s, like the great Elizabeth Strangman of Washfield Nursery and even more so, Robin White of Blackthorn Nursery.

Hellebore primrose

A vigorous single primrose yellow Hellebore in my garden with dark staining near nectaries

Of course it was Helen Ballard who really started hybridising Hellebores in the 60s, not just orientalis ones but crosses between other species.  Basically, without being too techy this means taking rising pollen from one flower (rising in that it produces golden dust on your finger, mostly on sunny days in the morning) and transfering it to another flower that is just opening where the stamens are not developed and where the bees have not already done their work.  In the old days, after this was carried out, small muslin bags were often tied round the hand pollinated flower to stop the bees getting in.  These days commercially, the plants are all undercover and the pollination is carried out there so no bees can get in.


A flower at this stage is ready to accept pollen from a more advanced flower that is producing rising pollen

Why the need for hand pollinating Hellebores?

Helleborus orientalis forms are copious seeders but before Helen Ballard, most of the orientalis type Hellebores grown in gardens were of muddy colouration with seedling progeny being mixed and variable through insect pollination.  They do not come true to type from seed.

It was found that by selecting say two similar looking plants of the same colour with good characteristics, like outward facing flowers and good, even shape, then by hand pollinating as detailed above and growing on the resultant seed, many plants with the improved characteristics were produced.

The same theory was carried out for other characteristics for example two plants with the same colour background and mild, uneven spotting, could result in young plants produced with even, heavier and more desirable spotting; two plants with dark nectaries on a same colour background (nectaries in non techy terms form a ring around the central stamens of the flower) crossed could produce a desirable dark staining to the centre of the plant as well as dark nectaries, so on and so forth.  The cross was always carried out as a back cross (ie both ways) and notes taken so it could be determined which seed bearing parent produced the better plant.  If no other similar good looking plants were available to cross with then ‘selfing’ was carried out.  In other words, taking pollen from one flower on a plant to pollinate another flower on the same plant.

Hellebore marks

This single Hellebore has good dark staining right up to the nectaries. If I were to cross it with a similar flower, I might get a more prominent staining and dark nectaries in the resultant plants.

Helen Ballard named many of her beautiful hybrid Hellebore orientalis which had exquisite shape and colours but this was not commercial at the time as she had not developed seed strains and although it is easy to divide Hellebore orientalis hybrids successfully (which I shall talk about later), it was not a viable option on a large scale.

It was really Robin White of the fabled Blackthorn Nursery that took up the gauntlet and boy did he run with it! Elizabeth Strangman worked on a much smaller scale than Robin White and offered some beautiful plants by hand pollinating and selecting in small batches, Robin was crossing feintly spotted wild Hellebore orientalis selections (known once as as a sub species, guttatus) and producing strains of white spotted, pink spotted, green spotted and yellow spotted amongst other strains such as red strain and slatey blue strain in their 1000s.  I shall never forget the Hellebore days of Blackthorn Nursery when people would come from all over Europe to buy and I still have the plants I purchased from both Washfield Nursery and Blackthorn nursery, some of which are over 25 years old!

white spotted

Robin White’s white spotted strain is so strong that it regularly throws up young plants from open pollination all with evenly spotted white or pale pink flowers.

Cross pollinating different species of Hellebores

Of course it wasn’t just orientalis strains that Robin was offering.  He was one of the first to offer a large range of double Hellebores in his ‘Party Dress’ doubles.  These were originally derived from seed selected from double forms of Helleborus torquatus found in the wild and  not the German double forms that many are using today which we see for sale in garden centres.  The difference in the German doubles used for breeding is that they are very heavy and tend to weigh the plant down, you also don’t get so many flower stems, in my garden for certain but they do perform well in pots.  The torquatus doubles are outward facing generally but have a much more upright habit.  Both tend to be shorter than the singles so as a cut flower, generally only suitable for luxury posies rather than long stemmed bouquets (I will address cutting Hellebores later).


Helleborus semi double green with Picotee plum edge that came from the unlikely cross of a double green with semi-double plum. This plant is not hugely vigorous but I still have it after 18 years

Many doubles available now sadly also have other additional aspects to them such as spotting and petaloid nectaries (I’ll define this a bit further down) which to me, not only leads to a very fussy looking plant that looks completely unnatural but has also lead to some very weak plants for sale.  It’s overbreeding at it’s worst and all they can look very seductive in the garden centre, they have spent their entire lives undercover, artificially fed and no doubt heavily applied with pesticides as Hellebores can be a martyr to aphids under cover which can easily spread virus between plants.

Party Dress

Elegant petals of a Party Dress double Hellebore from Robin White

Double German

A German double Hellebore. Ungainly and overly heavy in my opinion.

When I first obtained doubles, I only purchased one in each colour available.  Wanting to produce plants from them I had no option but to ‘self’ them by hand pollination but I also decided to have a go at crossing a single with a double of similar  colour without knowing what I was doing.  Evidently, others were doing the same as me and so was born the Anemone centred Hellebore.

white Anemone centre

One of my first Anemone centre plants I produced from crossing a single with a double. This is a very vigorous plant with over 40 flower stems.  Anemone centre refers to the petaloid nectaries around the stamens.

seed parent

Seed bearing parent of the Anemone Centre Hellebore above

Pollen bearing

Double crossed with single above as pollen bearing parent of the Anemone centred Hellebore.

Anemone plum

This Anemone centre only has a small ruff as the nectaries are less inflated. It was produced by crossing a single plum with a semi-double plum.

Robin White also offered selections of Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, in forms such as ‘Potter’s Wheel’, niger x sternii crosses and niger x corsicus crosses. NONE OF THESE ARE EASY TO GROW IN THE UK IN THE GROUND AND THEY DEFINITELY DO NOT LIKE SHADE OR OUR WET WINTERS, so let me tell you a bit more about them and others.

Firstly, let’s take the variety of Hellebores generally available for sale in the UK at garden centres and nurseries today (I’m not including specialised species here)

Helleborus argutifolius (formerly corsicus) – the former species name refers to the fact that it comes from Corsica which should tell you that it likes a warm place.  It is not a shade lover and does dreadfully in the open garden where the leaves can be a martyr to black spot.  It is always best planted against a wall, North South East or West as long as the North side is not too dark.  Easily raised from fresh seed.

Helleborus foetidus – The stinking Hellebore grows in sun or light shade and definitely prefers lime or chalk and thin shaley soils.  It is usually short lived on rich soils. Easily raised from fresh seed.

Helleborus x hybridus (formerly orientalis) – The Lenten rose, but be careful, several of the new mixed species crosses that I will discuss below are being marketed in garden centres as lenten roses which they are not!  Definitely the easiest species to grow but as so many have been hybridised by hand pollinating they are little like the true wild forms that used to be grown in gardens in their muddy colours so have been reclassified as H x hybridus.  When buying and selecting these, simplest is best. The more features going on in one plant, say doubling, with spotting, with anemone centre too will generally be weaker plants.  When you see them in pots in flower, don’t forget that they will have been growing in artificial conditions and so won’t necessarily perform as well in your garden.  They like sun or shade and you can grow them from fresh seed but they will rarely come true from seed.

Red Hellebore

Simplicity provides the strongest garden plants. This is a seedling plant that arose in the hedgerow from the original red strain I have nearby, it has the typical vigour of that strain.

Helleborus lividus – This is not hardy generally in the Uk but is frequently sold in garden centres as hardy.  It makes a great pot plant protected under cold glass in winter, it also likes plenty of sun but more alarmingly it is increasingly being used as a breeding parent for many hybrids for sale in garden centres that have then been bulked up by tissue culture so are all clonal plants.  It stands to reason that if this is not a hardy plant, making it one of the parents will undoubtedly make the hybridised offspring less likely to be fully hardy  The species is easily raised from fresh seed.


Helleborus lividus is a beautiful plant but it is not reliably hardy in the UK. It needs lots of sun and good drainage.


Leaf of Helleborus lividus which shows extensive deep veining, even if wrongly labelled in the Garden centre the clue is in the leaf

Helleborus niger – is what we know as the Christmas rose, there are some selected named form of this which are re-produced by division or mostly, tissue culture commercially.  All niger are difficult to grow in the garden but make good pot plants if re-potted yearly and divided every few years.  In the garden they prefer a limey, well drained soil and sun NOT shade.  They definitely perform better if sheltered.  I’ve seen them growing well at the base of a Beech Hedge.  The species are easily raised from fresh seed.  Named forms will not come true from seed but may raise some desirable plants.

Helleborus mixed species crosses – this is where it all starts to get complicated but this section is probably the most relevant part of the blog referring to the ‘dumbing down’ of Hellebores. Unfortunately, most garden centres are now stocking these mixed species crosses as their main selection of Helleborus offerings described below.  Many of them don’t provide details of the cross, they are just sold under a cultivar name such as the popular Helleborus ‘Anna’s Red’.  This actually has a label accompanying it saying it is a lenten rose which it is not, it nearly died in my garden (it was gifted to me by my friend Rodney Davey who bred it) so I lifted it and it is happy in a terracotta pot, overwintered undercover in very cold or wet weather).

H Anna's Red

Helleborus ‘Anna’s Red’ is being marketed as a lenten rose which it is not. If you look at the leaf you can clearly see the influence of lividus in the breeding which is not a reliably hardy plant.

Why does this matter?

It matters for a few reasons.  Firstly these mixed species crosses have mostly been produced by crossing a hardy species with a non hardy species, or worse, a non-hardy species with a difficult species and even a 3 way cross like ‘Anna’s Red’.  It stands to reason that if you cross a difficult plant with a non-hardy plant, you are more than likely to produce a plant that is not a good garden plant when grown in the ground. However, these plants do make great pot plants when grown undercover in winter or in a sunny porch, which is one reason why the garden centres like them as they look good but just because something looks good in a commercial glass house, and has benefited from a regular chemical feed plus regular pesticide applications doesn’t mean it will do well in a garden situation with weeks of wet and cold in winter. These mixed species hybrids rarely, if ever set viable seed.

Although originally raised from seed, these plants have been multiplied by tissue culture as Hellebores do not come true from seed, they cannot be given a cultivar name unless vegetatively propagated, so these have all been derived from the material of the original plant and a clue to a tissue culture raised Hellebore is when it has been given a cultivar name.

H Winter Darling

Helleborus ‘Winter Darling’ is a mixed species cross that is possibly tougher than some because the leaves do not show the use of lividus in the breeding.  These mixed species crosses are also being marketed as suitable for planting in shade in the open garden like orientalis hybrids which is totally the opposite of where they would thrive in the garden.  If you do wish to grow them outside in the ground, I would suggest South or west facing in a sheltered position near the house and ideally with a gravel mulch to keep mud splash off the flowers and help prevent black spot in winter.

Another way of detecting what sort of Hellebore you have or are intending to purchase

Look at the leaves.  This is undoubtedly the biggest clue.


Top left Helleborus argutifolius. Centre top orientalis, top right foetidus, bottom left niger, bottom right mixed species cross which shows the influence of niger and argutifolius

By looking at the leaves, plus the ones shown before for lividus and ‘Anna’s Red’ you can help identify what parents might have been used in the cross.  The more prominent the veining, as lividus in picture under Helleborus lividus, the more likely the plant will need a very sheltered growing area or be better off in a pot given winter protection.

More details of  mixed species crosses

It is worth noting that these crosses below are resulting in our biggest garden centre selections available of Hellebores with cultivar names. Because species plants often show subtle variations, like big flower, small flower, long stem, short stem, pink blush, outward facing etc, the same cross and back cross can result in a plethora of different plant types being produced as suitable plants for tissue culture production on a large scale.

Helleborus x ballardiae – This cross was named after Helen Ballard who was the first person to carry out the cross successfully.  It certainly produces some beautifully floriferous plants if grown in a pot protected from adverse weather but can hardly be relied upon to be easy in the garden with the cross being between the non-hardy lividus and difficult niger.  Sadly, this cross is one of the most used today for garden centre named cultivars being offered which is one reason I guess that people are saying to me that they can’t grow Hellebores.  However, these crosses do make wonderful cut flowers.  More on this later.

Helleborus x nigercors – This cross is Helleborus niger crossed with argutifolius (formerly corsicus).  Generally tougher than those crosses of the above but still suffers from wet winter damage but also good in a pot and some for cut flowers too.  Garden grow as  for H x ballardiae.

Helleborus x nigerstern –  Also known as H. ‘Ericsmithii’ who was the first person known to make the cross. This cross is between Helleborus niger and Helleborus x sternii (itself a cross but also a fertile cross) and all the above is relative again for planting conditions.

Helleborus x sternii – Is a cross between lividus and argutifolius named after the person who first discovered the cross, Sir Frederick Stern, it is very similar looking to argutifolius but instead of apple green flowers, the flowers are a more pewter pink and they can be variable in shading.  The leaves also have a pewter cast, it is not fully hardy but hardier in warmer counties.  Again it can be a martyr to blackspot if grown in the open garden.  At it’s best grown at the base of a wall facing South or West.  Unlike most other mixed species crosses, this cross actually often sets viable seed for collection although resulting seedlings should be selected for those with the more pewter coloured leaves.

Growing Hellebores from seed

spotted green

Single green spotted Helleborus orientalis hybrid in my garden just beginning to open

Hellebore seed has a short viability, it needs to be sown fresh, ideally within a couple of weeks after collecting.  If you have no plants to collect from, some Hellebore growers offer fresh seed for sale but most don’t send out until around August.  Seed in the UK is generally ripening by the end of April and early May so best to harvest then.

Pods inflate hugely and usually pop open when pressure is applied.  Seed is black or almost black when ripe.  Take care when harvesting seed by wearing gloves as it can burn your finger tips.  This is often not realised until some hours after collecting and can leave you with sore fingers for days!

Sow on a soil based seed compost (seed takes some time to germinate may be up to a year but seedlings usually begin to appear before winter, so needs a good seed compost) and cover with horticultural fine grit. Hellebores have extensive roots so I like to sow in pots rather than trays kept outside in a cold frame so that they can be protected from excessive wet but still be exposed to fresh air.  Do not be in a hurry to prick out when the true leaves emerge.  Give them a liquid feed in their seed pots and wait for the seedlings to grow somewhat before pricking out.  Either transplant to a 9cm pot to grow on or plant out in nursery rows to grow on to flowering stage.  If grown in pots, young plants will probably need to be potted on into a 1 1/2 or 2L pot, preferably a long pot by the following late summer.  Growing in pots that are protected from weather in the winter will often see plants flowering in their second year.  Grown in nursery beds, they may take up to 4 years to flower.

It is best not to let seed form and drop in situ from flowered plants in the garden because seedlings can take over the original plant and may be of inferior quality so remove flowered stems from all plants other than those stems you are saving for seed collection, in early May generally but this may be earlier or later depending where you live in the UK

spot Anemone

Anemone centre Hellebore with feint but even spotting and good even shape

Dividing Hellebores

Division of some Hellebores is only for very experienced gardeners as it can lead to heavy losses and some such as Helleborus foetidus are just not suited to it.

Dividing Helleborus orientalis hybrids and Helleborus niger is relatively simple if the plant is large.  Indeed it might be necessary on very old plants as the centre of the plant like many perennials might become exhausted and flowering stems are only being produced on the outsides.  The best time to divide is when the plants are in full flower and before the new leaves are properly emerging.  You can either lift the whole plant, clean some soil away and cut the plant into sections, each containing roots with at least one flowering stem or if the plant has grown away from the centre, just chop sections of plant from the ground as if cutting a slice of cake.  Either pot up into not too large a pot or transplant directly.  Don’t let a potted plant get too wet after this operation.  As soon as new leaf or leaves are produced and fully expanded, remove the flowering stem.

glow Hellebore

Self sown Helleborus orientalis hybrid glowing in the winter sunshine

Looking after Hellebores

I find that orientalis forms are generally care free but all benefit from a feed at the end of flowering.  Either a liquid feed such as seaweed extract or a granular feed such as Vitax Q 4 raked into the soil around the plant and watered in.  Orientalis like a mulch either at the same time or in early autumn of leafmould or well rotted compost.  Composted bark is also good but snowdrops do not like bark chips so if you are growing these nearby it’s worth mentioning.

I like to remove all the old leaves of Hellebore orientalis forms in November so the flowers come through on naked stems.  For niger and the others I just remove any leaves that have black spot or that are old and tatty.

By May, I remove all the flowered stems unless I am still waiting for seed to ripen for collecting.

Pests and Diseases

Hellebore Black Death

This is undoubtedly the most serious disease not to be confused with Black spot.  If you suspect any Hellebore of having this, dig it up and burn it immediately as the disease could be spread to other Hellebores by Aphids.  Signs of this are severe black streaking to flower stems and distorted, misshapen flower buds.  The plant later starts to deteriorate rapidly as it comes into flower and looks wilted.  I have had this on two plants in my garden that I had purchased elsewhere a few years ago.  No others have suffered from this misfortune.

Hellebore Black spot

This often manifests in wet winters and just because you get it one year, doesn’t mean you will get it the next but it is one reason why I remove all the leaves from my Helleborus orientalis hybrids in November and any leaves that have it on other forms to reduce the chance of it spreading to the flowers and to further leaves.


A serious problem but particularly to Hellebores grown undercover.  Aphids carry disease and can spread virus quite quickly from one plant to another.  In a well balanced garden, small birds will generally eat most of the Aphids but undercover this is not possible.  Most commercially grown Hellebores are reliant on heavy pesticide applications as they are grown undercover and therefore more prone to Aphid attack.


A serious pest of country gardens.  Voles will literally grind the flower buds to confetti as soon as they are formed on plants in autumn and if they don’t get them all then they are serious seed raiders and steal all the seed.  As an organic garden grower I rely on my cats to kill all the voles.  If you do not have cats, cutting the leaves away in autumn as I advised for Hellebore orientalis and keeping areas clear around Hellebores in autumn and winter will provide fewer hiding places for voles.  Fill any vole holes in the ground with coarse grit, and keep the holes checked for future activity.  This encourages them to venture somewhere else to make their underground nests.  I have also found placing ground cloves around Hellebore buds reasonably successful but if wet continually, repeat applications may be necessary.

Double pink

Double Hellebore with German influence but not too heavy as to spoil the look of the plant

Hellebores as cut flowers

For all the pictures I see on Instagram with Hellebore orientalis hybrids picked still carrying all their pollen and freshly opened for use in winter arrangements, it’s nonsense I’m afraid.  The flowers will wilt within 24 hours unless for floating in a bowl of water.

Much has been said about slitting the flower stem right along it’s length and up as near to the flower as you can go and then searing the base of the stem for 10 seconds with boiling water.  In my experience, this can extend the life of the flower by maybe 2 days but then it will still wilt if in a warm place and let’s face it, most inside places in winter are kept warm!  If kept cold the flowers will hold for maybe 4 or 5 days after this treatment, maybe longer if the first flower on the stem has lost it’s pollen.  As the season progresses and more flowers on each stem lose their pollen, the longer the stem will last as a cut flower

Orientalis cutting

You can’t cut Hellebores at this stage without wilting very quickly if brought into the warm

When you get well into the season, near to the end of Hellebore time the flowers can cut well, particularly if all the pollen has fallen on every flower to each stem.  However, many orientalis hybrids will fade to dirty colours at this time and so may not be suitable for use but some take on wonderful faded colours and the dark plum ones stay that colour.  Cut at this stage they will last up to 2 weeks in water with no searing required.

Mixed species cut

You can cut some of the mixed species crosses successfully but still not until the pollen has fallen from the first flowers.

The mixed species crosses are much more suitable as a cut flower earlier in the season.  This is generally because they produce many more flowers per stem and the flowers lose their pollen much more quickly as seen in the picture above.  They still may require slitting and searing but other problems are that many are short of stem so maybe only of use as buttonholes and there is the whole not fully hardy thing.  Some commercial cut flower growers are using longer stemmed forms for cut flowers but they need to be grown undercover as too unreliable outside, with summer ventilation and you then have the whole Aphid problem.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be using any harmful pesticides to control the aphids so if you wish to grow them extensively for use as a cut flower you need to consider this.  Helleborus ‘Winter Darling’ has quite a long stem if grown undercover.

Further Reading


Books for further reading

Quite probably out of print, both of these books are well worth tracking down if you can find a second hand copy.

Jane Edmonds

4 March 2018











Forcing Hyacinths

I have been asked a number of times ‘why are my forced Hyacinths so behind?’.  My first reply to that would be ‘Are you using prepared Hyacinth Bulbs?’  If you want to force them you must.  The difference between a prepared and ordinary Hyacinth Bulb is that the prepared ones have been kept in really cold temperatures during the summer months to trick them into thinking it is spring when they come into the warm.

Hyacinth Bulbs

Forced Hyacinths, Variety ‘Woodstock’

I start all mine off at the same time but stagger them coming into flower from Christmas day through the best part of January to lift my spirits on dull days with their dramatic colours and heavenly fragrance.

I am always moaning about drainage holes for plants but forced Hyacinths don’t need them.  You can use lots of decorative bowls as seen in the picture as long as you don’t overwater them!

I like to use bulb fibre as it contains charcoal to keep the soil ‘sweet’. I pot them all up at the same time, in the first week of October, except those I use in bulb vases with water. 3/4 fill your container with the fibre, place as many bulbs as you can fit in each container without touching, don’t mix colours as they tend to bloom at slightly different times and put in more bulb fibre so only about a quarter of the bulb is showing proud from the soil.  I give them a light watering  I then place them in the darkest place I can find in a cold but frost free, outbuilding.  You can put them in a dark place indoors but if you want them for Christmas, they may need to be started later if the room is warm.

By mid November, I check on them.  The greenest and thickest looking I bring out from storage but not all at that stage, some I will leave and they will be fine, the cooler the weather becomes, the more their progress will be slowed which means I can stagger my blooming time of varieties.  If the soil is very dry I will water lightly, add moss for a more attractive display and bring them in to the house.  Bear in mind that the warmer and lighter the room, the earlier they will be in flower but if they are coming too fast, you can slow them down again by placing them in the cool. Only water them if the soil seems very dry.

When I use bulb vases, I don’t force them in the cool and dark at all, I just bring them straight in and put them in a bulb vase filled with water which I drain and change weekly to keep fresh, holding the bulb in place so the roots don’t find their way out.  Because these are in the warm and I always place them in a sunny window, they don’t take very long at all to flower so by putting these in their vases towards the end of November, I can have them in flower for Christmas day, again if they are coming on too fast, slow them down by taking them somewhere cooler and darker.

After bulbs have finished blooming you can lift them and put them in a pot of compost to be planted out in the garden in the spring at 4 times depth of bulb. They won’t come early again in the garden the following year and they maybe single rather than double but they will still have that wonderful fragrance.

Hope this is helpful

Jane Edmonds 11 January 2017



Symptoms of the New Aquilegia Disease

I stupidly forgot to include symptoms of the disease yesterday.

I first noticed something was wrong in April after applying manure around 2 year old plants in the field where I grow my flowers for cutting.  Foliage that had emerged healthily suddenly became disfigured on a couple of plants in a planting of around 15.  These were plants that I had raised from my own seed that I had collected from a form that had proved quite stable as a strain.  It seemed to be a hybrid between vulgaris and the long-spurred ‘Dove’ strain with more delicate leaves than normal vulgaris and spurred pom-poms in a pretty powder blue.  All plants were proving vigorous.  The basal foliage looked singed at the edges and was beginning to shrivel.  I put it down to perhaps the manure in this area being a bit fresh and not properly rotted.

As the foliage worsened I thought I would do a search on Aquilegia problems and found information about this new disease which is a form of powdery mildew previously not known.  Healthy plants next to these two continued to grown on and flower.  Initially the flowers looked normal and beautiful.  Then I noticed that some of the new buds were distorting with brown speckles and some of these began to start turning brown as though rotting.  I have cut plants back to groundlevel as detailed in my previous post and intend to do as I said here.

Jane Edmonds


The New Aquilegia Disease

Granny's Bonnet

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Adelaide Addison’

I have 1000s of Aquilegia on this plot.  Two thirds are probably vulgaris strains. Ie the old Granny’s Bonnet type, some of which come remarkably true from seed if grown some way away from other forms, particularly ‘Adelaide Addison’ shown (although it sends up the odd fully blue one), ‘William Guinness’ deep plum with white as you might have guessed and the pom-pom types like ‘Ruby Port’ and ‘Nora Barlow’.

The remaining third are long spurred types.  Many are hybrids that have occured here from the species Aquilegia chrysantha which I have grown for many years, skinneri hybrids and crosses between those and vulgaris plus some long spurred Mckana type hybrids which flower much longer than straight forward vulgaris types and often with showier flowers.  However, it is this range that concerns me as I have noticed that the new Aquilegia disease has arrived here and is showing itself on some of these forms. The leaves of these forms are much finer and daintier than those of straight forward vulgaris forms and I wonder if they are more susceptible to the disease.  Little seems to be known about how and where it came from.  Most of the varieties here have been here for many years from when I had a nursery and I used to raise them from seed or collect seed from plants I had purchased some 20 years ago.  However, a few years ago, I bought a few plants of ‘Dove’ strain, a long spurred hybrid from a wholesale nursery and some of these have been affected.  I wonder if the disease came in from them or perhaps our mild wet winters have lead to it occurring naturally.

So what have I done about it?  Well worrying though it is I have not yet dug up and burned the plants as has been suggested.

However, I have cut the plants right back to ground level (cleaned my secateurs with methylated spirits) and plan to feed them first. If I see no positive results from this treatment, ie re-growth of healthy leaves, I will dig up and burn the affected plants.  I am also going to take measures to save seed from my best and most healthy forms even though they may not come true from seed as they are open pollinated, where they are growing away from other forms they possibly will give me a percentage of true forms.  By taking the seed and sowing it rather than letting it fall will allow me to introduce plants to different areas of the garden and flower field in the hope of re-establishing some forms a way away from where the disease has occurred (it has been spotted in two different places on this plot which extends to just under 2 acres).

Aquilegia disease

A hybrid cross between vulgaris and chrysantha type which is a good strain raised by me

Aquilegia seed is best sown fresh as soon as it turns black and I like to use a soil based seed compost and cover with vermiculite after sowing.

Let’s hope this disease is not here to stay, it may be weather induced.  A few years ago, Aquilegia saw-fly used to be quite a problem with me but I never seem to get that now but that is a pest rather than a disease and maybe the birds eat those.

I hope to make my next post a more positive one but I will keep you informed on how I get on with the cutting back and feeding.


Aquilegia ‘Dove’ strain has shown signs of the new disease







Jane Edmonds


The early umbellifers

To me, there is no other group of plants that says ‘country garden or country bouquet’ quite like the umbellifers.  They all belong to the family Apiaceae but cover several genus and can be annual, biennial or perennial.  They are mostly delicate and intricate but display nature’s detailed geometry to perfection within each umbel or flower.  They seem truly British but most hail from other countries.

The season of flower begins towards the end of April in South West UK starting with Alexanders, Smyrnium olosatrum.  It looks similar to Angelica and I love to forage it when I can to include in my flower arrangements of early Tulips and Tazzetta Daffodils. The frothy umbels are soft yellow and it brings lightness to larger, more showy flowers when in combination.  It was cultivated in cottage gardens up to the mid 18th Century as an alternative to celery and is now re-gaining popularity as an edible with fashionable London restaurants.

The related Smyrnium perfoliatum is perhaps easier to grow in a wider range of places and is also early but quite distinct from the former in the way the leaves cup the flower stems. Also the umbels are a more yallery-green.  Self-seeds widely when happy and looks great in a copse as the colour really brings light.  Also great as a cut flower.

Very quickly we move on to Cow Parsley which can span a long season as in some places it flowers incredibly early and others very late.  Although an essential ingredient in a spring bouquet, probably best for wilder parts in the garden as it quickly colonises areas.  However, the dark leaved Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ isn’t nearly as prolific and looks wonderful in a flower border with the claret thistle flowers of Cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’.

There is also a yellow leaved form which is particularly handsome in February, March and


Anthriscus ‘Ravenswing’ just coming into flower

Anthriscus 2

Yellow leaved form of Anthriscus

April before flowering when the leaves are a yallery lime green.  I grow it amongst my Snowdrops and Hellebores in a lightly shaded border and visitors always comment on it favourably often requesting seedlings.

Another Cow Parsley type favourite which begins flowering in May is Chaerophyllum hirsutus ‘Roseum’.  I have had this plant for a very long time.  I love using it in flower arrangements and in the garden it looks brilliant with blue Camassia leichtlinii, Dicentra all forms and Honesty.  It likes a good, rich soil in not too much sun but other than that is easy and long lived.

pink cow parsley

Chaerophyllum hirsutus ‘Roseum’

Also coming into flower now is Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’.  I remember getting very excited about this plant when I found it at a specialist plant fair over 12 years ago.  Unfortunately, it is rather ungainly as a garden plant but as a cut flower it is fantastic.  It looks like a cross between a Hellebore and Angelica with a herby fragrance and lasts forever in water!


Mathiasella bupleuroides ‘Green Dream’


Also beginning into flower are the early Astrantia.  There are now a vast amount of cultivars to choose from.  Some have amazingly large flowers but I find the ones with larger flowers tend to produce fewer stems for cutting and make less of a show in the garden overall.  I love cutting them for arrangements but beware, some smell distinctly of cheese!  I avoid these for arrangements!!!

My two absolute favourites and I have many different varieties, are: ‘Buckland’ which I think was introduced by the amazing Keith Wiley of Wildside Nursery when he was at the Garden House in Buckland Monachorum, Devon, not only for it’s subtle colouration and shapely bloom but also it’s sheer intent on giving 3 good displays of blooms per year and always the first into flower with me; ‘Roma’ for it’s abundance of bloom and good pink flowers, usually giving two good shows a year.  This was introduced by Piet Oudolf when he was a mere nurseryman and was a real breakthrough at the time because prior to that the only good pink Astrantia was maxima which only usually flowers onces, burns in too much sun and sulks in too much shade so ‘Roma’ took a leap to stardom.

I could continue into June umbellifers but I will be here all day and no time for that so I will talk about, Ammi, Bupleurum, Daucus and others another time!

16 May 2016

Tulips, perennial or annual?

IMG_20160505_185433When discussing whether Tulips are annual or perennial I am actually referring to the large flowered hybrids readily available from the majority of bulb suppliers in all their many forms and not the diminuitive species selections such as Tulipa bakeri, linifolia, sprengeri which, if they like you, will multiply both vegetatively and by seed.

Sadly, in the flower field at Edmonds & Howard, we burn 99% of the bulbs after use.  This is due to the following: we mostly pull the flowers for extra length, this can often mean up to about 25cm extra stem length, thereby damaging the bulbs; many of the more blousy forms cannot be guaranteed to flower well the following year if left in situ particularly if summer is wet and we need the ground for Dahlias; Tulips left in the ground are more susceptible to Tulip Fire, a nasty disease which distorts leaves and flowers and is more likely to occur after lengthy wet seasons.  The ground becomes infected after this and tulips should not be grown in the same area for at least 3 years.  We rotate in the field so newly planted Tulip bulbs would only return to the same area after 3 years.

In our garden I do leave some in situ, this is mostly due to lack of time but I have had favourable results with some of the more simple forms.  Particularly perennial for me have been two lily forms, namely ‘Ballerina’ an elegant, luminous orange which looks fabulous with yallery-green Euphorbia bracts on characias wulfenii, polychroma and robbiae, add some blue Camassia leichtlinii ‘Electra’ and pure spring zing is achieved; the dark Tulipa ‘Burgundy’ has also been great, both have lasted over 3 years with no shrinkage in size (the ones I have lost of these have been dug up by the badger but am going to add more next year and cover them with wire cloches!) and this looks particularly good when teamed with the subtle colouring of Lamium orvala.

I have also had great success over three years with ‘Jan Reuss’ a late single of dark blood red with a real sheen to the petals.  Looks well when partnered with contrasting blue forget-me-nots or pale primrose Wallflowers and also harmonises well with the Wallflower ‘Blood Red Covent Garden’.  Two dark single Tulip have also stood the test of time, the old ‘Queen of the Night’ can’t be beaten, except perhaps by ‘Havran’ which is similar but larger and fuller in flower.  They both look dreamy when planted is association with the fragrant late Daffodil, Narcissus ‘Pipit’ of pale lemon colouration which is vigorous too and ordinary primroses, Primula vulgaris.  A reliable pale pink single Tulip for me has been Esther, a lovely soft colour.  I intend to plant some more of this and team it with the pretty double white Primula ‘Dawn Ansell’ which does very well here.

I think part of the secret for these more perennial tulips lies in the depth of planting.  As with most Narcissus too, they should be planted deeply, 20cm down at least, which is a bit of a pain but worth it.  Sadly, unlike the Narcissus, they will not readily multiply but you can add more over time.  It is worth giving a try as lifting Tulips every year is time-consuming and rather wasteful.  Experimenting is what gardening is all about!

Foliage, more important than flowers as a cutflower grower/artisan florist

As most florists will tell you foliage is key to creating beautiful arrangements.  The addition of good foliage and fillers will turn a bunch of flowers into something extra special,

If you grow all your own cut flowers as I do, you may find a quantity of good foliage difficult at certain times of the year, particularly early spring if it is cold like it is this year in the UK.

Florists can buy in Eucalyptus and Pittosporum but Eucalyptus grown outside in inland UK will not have that lovely fresh growth and your Pittosporum may


Hornbeam coming into leaf

sulk or even die if you begin hacking huge chunks of that away when nights are still cold.

I am fortunate in having a large established garden as well as my cut flower growing areas (sometimes I think that is not such a great plus point as takes a tremendous amount of work to maintain to a reasonable standard!) and one of the best things I did was to plant a Hornbeam hedge.  The emerging leaves of Hornbeam are such a brilliant lime green they are invaluable in providing zing and natural beauty to spring flower arrangements, particularly tulips.  We trim the tops in March but leave the sides long until the end of May so there is plenty of available material for use while the Tulips, Camassia, Anemone and Ranunculus are in flower.

I am also lucky in having a very large Osmanthus x burkwoodii which is really a medium size tree now.  It usually flowers towards the end of March but with the warm winter and cold spring I have been able to cut well over 100 branches from it from mid February right the way through to now.  The, nicer than privet-like leaves, make a perfect collar for arrangements and the small white flowers are deliciously fragrant.

Spring foliage/flowers

Osmanthus x burkwoodii, heavenly fragrance


I am not sure, as a gardener, that I think myself fortunate to have Euphorbia robbiae though!  It is a rampant thug but fortunately now, mostly in the hedgerow and in the wild parts of the paddock.  However, for cutting material from early to late spring it is invaluable.  Again it has that yallery-green zing which really brings flowers to life and unlike Euphorbia characias varieties it doesn’t stink!  I don’t know how florist/flower farmers can dare to use that, as far as I am concerned it has an acrid smell which I find most unpleasant and can identify immediately on walking into a room with one stem of it in a vase.

Of course, you need to sear the stems of Euphorbia before using to stop the milky sap from exuding.  I sear the base of the stems for 20 seconds in boiling water and then pour that all over the stems where I have stripped away the foliage before placing into cold water overnight.  Wear gloves if you have sensitive skin when stripping the leaves as it can be a major skin irritant to some and also your hands will feel like they have been covered with gloss paint.

Below is a list of other plants that I find very useful in raiding for foliage at this time of year.  These are all woody stems so I slit the ends after cutting and sear in boiling water for 20 seconds before plunging into cold water overnight.


  • Euonymous ‘Emerald Gaiety’ – Abundant over time, green leaves, variegated white and fully hardy
  • Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’ (you need several though) Lasts ages in water in bud, flowers open cream, delicious fragrance
  • Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ – Neat grey eliptica leaves (nasty yellow daisies later which I remove)
  • Amelanchier lamarkii or canadensis.  Beautiful bronze leaves with white blossom
  • Cercis siliquastrum (prefers acid soil) Dainty bronze leaves
  • common Sycamore when leaves just unfurling, bronze tinted, looks amazing
  • Sorbus aria ‘Lutescens’ a tree which likes being pruned with lovely soft grey, oval leaves
  • Stephanandra tanakae with pretty, bronze tinted, vine like leaves and arching habit (although nice to use later too with it’s cream flowers)
  • For coloured twigs, Cornus ‘Flaviramea’ and Cornus ‘Mid Winter Fire’ (the latter is a bit of a runner
  • For lovely pussy willow Salix daphnoides and dwarf Salix ‘ Wehrhahnii ‘

There are other things but this is a good starting list.  Foliage can be provided easily with annuals in summer but if you intend to cut flowers as early and as late as possible then it is wise to choose shrubs that you can use at these times!

29 April 2016