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
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. co.uk; 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