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How to breed hellebores

You will need

  • Hellebore plants
  • Bowl of water
  • Differently-coloured wools
  • Black plastic pen
  • Half-sized seed tray
  • Loam-based seed compost
  • Horticultural grit
  • Plant labels and notebook
  • One-litre pots
Do it: February-March, May, October-November
Takes just: a few hours, over the course of a year

Overview

Creating unique hellebores from your favourite varieties is much easier than it sounds. If you decide to grow your own plants the only important requirements are two really good hellebores and a lot of patience. If your varieties are mediocre, or you just don't have any, treat yourself to some new ones. You can learn more about hellebore varieties here.

Either choose two quite different varieties or, if you want to concentrate on a particular characteristic or colour, choose those that display unique features. Plants can be pollinated in pots in coldframes or unheated greenhouses, or outside in the open garden. It is warmer work when done in the greenhouse, but pollinated flowers are more prone to rotting when indoors.


How to do it

Examining a hellebore plant to choose which flowers to breed from

1In February or March select the plants from which you will breed your hellebore. Choose a mother plant - the one to be pollinated, which will eventually bear the seeds - for its vigour and a good, even flower shape. Choose a father plant - which will supply the pollen - for the colour and shape of its flowers.


Hellebore flowers floating in a bowl of water

2The day before you intend to pollinate your plant, cut at least one fully open flower from the father plant, making sure it has 2.5cm (1in) of stem. Bring this flower into the house and float it in a shallow bowl of water overnight. By the next day, the pollen should be fluffy. If you prefer, you can forego this step and take pollen without removing the flower head. However, cutting the flower does give you greater control.


Tying a coloured wool bow to the stem of a hellebore flower

3Select a few flowers on the mother plant that are just about to open and mark them by gently tying a bow of coloured wool around their necks. To keep track of the plants, label them with a number and note down both the number and a brief description of the variety in a notebook. Stick a little of the same coloured wool alongside the description of the plant as a visual reminder.


Holding a pen tip against the pollen grains on a hellebore anther

4It is best to pollinate on a bright, sunny day as pollen is more prolific in warm conditions. On your chosen day, gather pollen from the father plant by brushing it from the anthers. Some people use a soft brush, which is fine if you're only making one cross, but if you are making more a black plastic pen top is better, as you can see clearly if the top is clean of stray pollen grains, whereas they can hide in brush bristles. Simply take the top and rub it on your sleeve to create static. Move the top close to the anthers of the father and pollen will jump on it.


Transferring pollen onto the stigma of a hellebore flower with a pen tip

5Gently pull back the petals of the mother flower and transfer the pollen on to its stigma. The stigma should be slightly sticky and receptive to the pollen, but you'll notice the anthers in this flower will not yet be developed. (Some breeders cut off the anthers to guard against self-pollination, but this is not necessary with an unopened flower.) Now gently close the flower. You can repeat this up to three times on the same flower.


Collecting seeds from a hellebore seed pod

6With a bit of luck, seed will be set and starting to ripen at the end of May. The seed pods will fatten and change from pale green to brown, at which point you need to collect the seed before it is shed. Ripe seed should be shiny and black. If possible, sow the seed immediately as it doesn't store well. If you do need to save it, put it in an envelope or paper bag and store it in a cool, dry place.


Sowing hellebore seeds into a seed tray

7Sow the seed on the surface of compost in half-sized seed trays or pots, spacing them at regular intervals. Any seed compost will do, but a loam-based type with extra grit is ideal. The seedlings may be in the tray for some time and loam-based compost contains lots of nutrients and will sustain growth longer. Cover the surface with coarse grit to improve drainage around the emerging seedlings, as well as retain moisture and deter algae.


Creating a label for the seed tray and recording the names of plants crossed in a notebook

8Label the tray, recording the names of the plants crossed and the date. Water thoroughly with a fine rose and place in a coldframe or in a sheltered spot outside. Protect from mice. Germination should start from September onwards.


Inserting a plant label into a pot containing a hellebore seedling

9October-November: once the plants have made true leaves, they can be separated and potted up individually. The following spring, pot them on into one-litre pots or grow on and plant into their final positions. The most exciting part is when you see the flowers of the new progeny you've helped to create, about two years after pollination. These will be totally new hellebores and you are the first to see them.




Discuss this project

Talkback: How to breed hellebores
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deafandold 24/11/2011 at 15:28

wonderful, makes it all look easy Thank you

Newcastle 24/11/2011 at 15:29

More articles on selective plant breeding would be a good idea especially as many people these days will be gardening on a tight budget, including me!

jjdfhgj 24/11/2011 at 15:29

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jrhcjhcehaeh 24/11/2011 at 15:29

I have lots of young hellebore plants which are self sown. How long should it take them to flower? Some have been growing for more than two years.

lolmordue 25/03/2013 at 15:13

lol&dor 25/03/2013

We have hundereds of self seeded hellebores around the old plants We will pot some of these up as we do every year and later put in the soil in a poition we require them and have them flowering in 2 years.