One of a kind

Three decades of work have pro­duced a re­mark­able col­lec­tion of unique helle­bores for one nurs­ery­man, yet they would be too ex­pen­sive to put into com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion and could dis­ap­pear, finds Jacky Hobbs

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Clive Ni­chols

Three decades of work by Mike By­ford have pro­duced a re­mark­able col­lec­tion of unique hy­brid helle­bores. Jacky Hobbs trav­els to Ha­zles Cross Farm in Stafford­shire

Helle­bores are en­chant­ingly and nat­u­rally di­verse, their promis­cu­ity en­sur­ing that nu­mer­ous hybrids can oc­cur, ei­ther by ac­ci­dent or de­sign. sci­en­tist and nurs­ery­man Mike by­ford has tried to har­ness the more de­sir­able traits that may oc­cur among the re­sult­ing hybrids and, over the past 30 years, he has amassed more than 1,000 in­di­vid­ual named or, more fre­quently, just num­bered, helle­bore plants, which com­prise a unique col­lec­tion within his stafford­shire poly­tun­nels.

Mr by­ford also holds a Na­tional Col­lec­tion of wild species helle­bores, many of which hail from east­ern europe and fur­ther east, whose ge­netic in­her­i­tance is in­cor­po­rated into his breeding work. In ad­di­tion, there are nu­mer­ous named, in­ter­sec­tional crosses and cul­ti­vars, plants re­sult­ing from en­thu­si­asts cre­at­ing hybrids that would not nat­u­rally (ge­o­graph­i­cally) oc­cur in the wild. They are usu­ally the re­sults of years of ded­i­cated work, but the off­spring is gen­er­ally ster­ile, so their in­di­vid­ual qual­i­ties are more read­ily repli­ca­ble by di­vi­sion or mi­cro prop­a­ga­tion.

‘Their down­fall is their ex­treme vari­abil­ity; they don’t come true from seed

How­ever, the helle­bores that most peo­ple en­joy best of all in their gar­dens are found among the hun­dreds of very vari­able, of­ten fancy, but not al­ways of­fi­cially named hybrids col­lec­tively gath­ered un­der the um­brella head­ing of Helle­borus x hy­bridus.

Across three decades, Mr By­ford has raised nu­mer­ous very de­sir­able helle­bores in shades of lemon, apri­cot, plum, rasp­berry, cream, black­berry and pis­ta­chio. Some are per­fectly cupped sin­gles, oth­ers have froufrou anemone cen­tres with rosettes of nec­taries or wear full skirts of strik­ing, dou­ble-lay­ered petals.

De­spite the readi­ness to hy­bridise among helle­bores, there is a down­side, says Mr By­ford: ‘Their down­fall is their ex­treme vari­abil­ity; they don’t come true from seed.’ There­fore, presently, there is only one of each plant. There could be more, but repli­cat­ing sin­gle plants by di­vi­sion isn’t com­mer­cially vi­able and mi­cro-prop­a­ga­tion is be­yond Mr By­ford’s fi­nan­cial reach. Con­se­quently, his re­mark­able col­lec­tion is frag­ile and lies in peril, for he suf­fers from a de­bil­i­tat­ing au­toim­mune con­di­tion known as Sjo­gren’s syn­drome and th­ese plants may per­ish with­out his de­voted at­ten­tion.

A less flam­boy­ant part of the col­lec­tion com­prises 28 recog­nised wild species helle­bores. Th­ese are un­doubt­edly less threat­ened, as most still thrive in their nat­u­ral habi­tats, al­though some species are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly rare due to habi­tat loss. The species plants have been in­valu­able in pro­vid­ing much of the par­ent ma­te­rial for Mr By­ford’s spe­cialised breeding pro­gramme.

In colour alone (and this can vary within each species), tones range widely, from white Helle­borus niger to white/green H. ori­en­talis, green

H. foetidus and H. herce­gov­i­nus to del­i­cate-pink H. thi­betanus and smoky­dark H. pur­puras­cens.

Fur­ther vari­a­tions in helle­bores oc­cur in their form, fo­liage and fra­grance. H. thi­betanus pro­duces broad, pointy petals, whereas

H. herce­gov­i­nus has a wild hairdo of tou­sled fo­liage. H. bo­conei and the re­cently iden­ti­fied H. lig­uri­cus are of­ten scented. Blooms can be painted with speck­les, spots, stripes and pi­co­tee edg­ings, all of which can be utilised in breeding some­thing re­ally spe­cial.

Mr By­ford’s Na­tional Col­lec­tion of wild species is unique in that it con­tains mul­ti­ples of each species, to show first their in­her­ent vari­abil­ity and, se­cond, po­ten­tial ge­o­graphic dif­fer­en­tials; the prove­nance of each plant is known. Mr By­ford draws upon th­ese pe­cu­liar­i­ties in the course of his breeding work. An ex­am­ple can be seen in H.

niger. For more than a decade, Mr By­ford has been mak­ing multi-gen­er­a­tional crosses of straight H.niger, the pop­u­lar ‘Christ­mas rose’ which is typ­i­fied by a large white flower. He has re­peat­edly in­ter-crossed to aug­ment an ap­par­ent but re­ces­sive green gene and the re­sult is his cre­ation of two beau­ti­ful white-flow­ered nigers with star-shaped, green cen­tral mark­ings: Jade Moon and Jade Star. Th­ese are tech­ni­cally species nigers, al­beit se­lected ones; they come true from seed, thus their longevity is as­sured.

It is also pos­si­ble to cross dif­fer­ent species to cre­ate ‘in­ter­sec­tional hybrids’, most of which are typ­i­cally ster­ile. Mr By­ford’s col­lec­tion in­cor­po­rates his­toric in­ter­sec­tional breeding work, par­tic­u­larly by the 1980s helle­bore breeding doyennes El­iz­a­beth Strang­man and He­len Ballard.

Adding his own panache to in­ter­sec­tional breeding, Mr By­ford has suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing and in­tro­duc­ing the very rare cross, H. niger x

thi­betanus Pink Mar­ble, bear­ing an al­lur­ing, fresh-faced, veined-pink sin­gle flower.

The depth and ge­o­graphic mix of Mr By­ford’s helle­bores ex­ceeds any ex­pec­ta­tion of a Na­tional Col­lec­tion. Added to this, he has a sig­nif­i­cant his­toric col­lec­tion of named her­itage helle­bore hybrids. How­ever, surely even more re­mark­able and de­sir­able are the hun­dreds of no-name, po­ten­tially ephemeral plants, par­ented by this out­stand­ing col­lec­tion.

Ha­zles Cross Farm, Hollins Lane, Kingsley, Stafford­shire ST10 2EP (www.ha­zle­scross­farm­nurs­ery.; 01538 752669; mo­bile 07550 012662). Open mid Fe­bru­ary to late March, 10am to 3.30pm (closed Sun­days and Wed­nes­days). Please tele­phone be­fore set­ting off to check open­ing time if trav­el­ling some dis­tance

‘Blooms can be painted with speck­les, spots, stripes and pi­co­tee edg­ings

Above: Gold semi-dou­ble. Fac­ing page: Dark anemone-cen­tred, pink

Go green: Helle­borus abruzzi­cus x abruzzi­cus

Cop­pery peach with plum stripes

Helle­borus atrorubens of east­ern Slove­nia

Rich plum dou­ble on red stem

Above: Helle­borus ori­en­talis ssp. gut­ta­tus, from Ge­or­gia. Fac­ing page: Al­most black, bur­gundy solid dou­ble

Ray of sun­shine: un­usual but­tery-yel­low sin­gle

Above: Cream semi-dou­ble with a rasp­berry pi­co­tee edge. Right: Mike By­ford at work, cross-pol­li­nat­ing his helle­bores

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