There was once a time when the passing of the seasons was not marked by the return to school or specials on Amazon, but by more traditional activities. Christmas was – and still is – one of the most important, and another, now faded, was Lent, a time of fasting. Although justified by religion, for people who lived from the land, it was more a matter of necessity, since winter food supplies had been used, and new crops were not ready, Requirements to fast meant the precious supply put aside for spring sowing was less likely to be eaten in desperation, leading to further shortages. As well, these times were marked by the growth of flowers, but in winter these were scarce. No wonder that any magical plant bold enough to push up its blooms while snow still lay on the ground came in for special attention. And so there is the Christmas Rose, and the Lenten Rose. This modest plants, with their flowers of pale greenish-white or pinkish-white would not attract much attention in spring or summer, but they were treasured exactly because of their early blooming. In many gardens, once the buds began to show, a plate of glass would be carefully supported over them, to protect them from rain and mold.
What are Hellebores?
These plants, no relatives of roses at all, are today usually called hellebore(s), directly from their Latin name, Helleborus, which is the name they were know by among the ancient Greeks. They were certainly looking at the Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis, which grows wild in Greece. The Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger, grows further west, in Switzerland and surrounding countries.
Although at first glance the flowers of hellebores look like an ordinary flower, what you are seeing are not petals, but sepals – parts of flowers that are usually green and protect the bud. The true petals have been reduced to small tubes surrounding the center of stamens. Called ‘nectaries’, these produce abundant nectar, to attract and reward the few insects brave enough to be out in cold, wintery weather. As well,
the sepals do not fall the way petals do, but remain as the seeds (if any are produced) ripen. This means that hellebores retain their coloring and beauty week after week, often lasting literally for months. The colors tend to darken and green as the flowers age, but they still remain charming and beautiful. This long-lasting quality is another reason why hellebores have become so popular.
For many years – centuries in fact – these were the only hellebores grown. It was only in the 19th century that gardeners began to think that they could be improved on.
At first random seedlings with stronger coloring were chosen. Then people turned to the classic way to improve plants – cross two different species together. This usually produces plants that are more vigorous than either parent, and both combines their features and throws up all kinds of new ones.
The Victorian era was a time of great interest in plants and gardens, and also for travel and hiking, so for the first time other species of hellebores were being brought into gardens, especially in England and Germany. There are around 20 wild species, growing all across Europe, with a few in Turkey and Syria. It was also the first time perennial flowers and alpine flowers received much attention, and growers began to create hybrids, laying the foundation for the amazing range of perennials we enjoy today.
One person doing this with several different plant groups was Ernest Ballard. He started Old Court Nursery in 1906, west of the Malvern Hills, an area in southwestern England. The nursery specialized in the asters that consumed most of Ernest Ballard’s interest. Ballard employed a skilled gardener called Percy Picton, who not only made the nursery a success, but also bred numerous other plants.
But our story is about Helen Ballard, so where does she fit into this picture? Born as Grace Helen Ranken, in 1908, when a young woman she moved to Hamburg in Germany, and met Peter Wilson. They married in 1935, eventually divorcing in 1951. Wilson went on to become the chairman of Sotheby’s auction house. The year of her divorce Helen married Philip Ballard, a son of Ernest Ballard, who died in 1952. Percy Picton bought the nursery, which continues to this day.
Being close to the nursery business gave Helen an interest in plants, especially hellebores, and she was given several early hybrids by Percy Picton , who had built up a collection of species and hybrids. Some were of his own making, and others came from his many contacts in the gardening world, who included the well-know Valerie Finnis. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Helen Ballard worked with here hellebores. This work is slow, since it takes 2 years at least for a plant to flower from seed, and 4 years for it to become large enough to divide. So it takes time to see the results of a cross, and to develop it, and even longer to have plants ready to sell.
A Disciplined and Creative Breeder
When you are working with many batches of many seedlings, it takes a clear mind and a clear target to stay on course. If a plant breeder is serious, many, many seedlings will go to the compost heap, for every one that is kept for breeding or named for release. Helen had a rule she bred by, and that guided her decisions whether to keep or discard a seedling. She looked for, “A clear, unstained color, evenness in the shape of the flower, with rounded, overlapping sepals of good size, and an upright habit combined with a healthy and vigorous growth. . .” Interestingly, given their popularity today, Helen loathed double flowers on her hellebores, and every single one that popped up quickly found its way to the compost heap.
One of her first crosses was between the Christmas Rose and a rare evergreen hellebore from the Mediterranean island of Majorca, called Helleborus lividus. This introduced better foliage to these plants, and is called Helleborus x ballardiae. A very vigorous plant, it has gone on to be used by other breeders to create some of the very best and most spectacular of today’s Christmas Roses, a long way from that old plant your great-grandmother probably grew.
Ballard Revolutionizes the Lenten Rose
She also turned her attention to the Lenten Rose, and was determined to expand the range of possible colors. To do this she used several other wild species into her increasingly-complex hybrids.
Yellows came from Helleborus odorus, known as the fragrant hellebore, a species from southeastern Europe, including the island of Crete. More-or-less evergreen, the flowers are chartreuse green, but the yellow in that was intensified by Helen’s breeding.
Brighter purples and pinks were introduced via Helleborus purpurascens, a species found all the way from Italy to Russia. The flowers of wild plants are warm purples, with some quite pink, bringing lots of richness to Ballard’s palette.
As well she used Helleborus torquatus, found down the eastern side of the Adriatic, from Croatia to Montenegro. This variable plant brings features that are very widely seen in modern varieties – dark edges to the sepals, dark veins, cool purple coloring, as well as deep reds and dusky blues, often described as ‘glaucous’.
Combining all these species together, Ballard created a new plant, Helleborus x hybridus, which is the correct name for almost all the plants sold as ‘Lenten Rose’, or ‘Helleborus orientalis’. All the marvelous veining, edging, darker centers and extraordinary colors that have made Hellebores so popular can be traced to the original plants. Among her creations was the first truly dark hellebore, ‘Ballard’s Black’. This plant caused a stir, and has been drawn by artists many times, so intriguing is the idea of a flower that, while actually a very dark blue, is probably the closest we have to a truly black flower.
On top of all these new features, her plants also had impressively large flowers, generally around 3 inches across, with thick, dense petals, carried on vigorous plants that flowered generously and in profusion. Truly an achievement that kept the cultivation of hellebores not just alive, but raised it to a new level of excellence.
The Wheels of Life Turn
Like so many gardeners, Helen Ballard lived to a good age, but when she felt her work was over she transferred her plants to a fellow breeder and hellebore enthusiast, Gisela Schmiemann. She had been working with Hellebores herself, since 1980, and began a small mail-order business distributing Ballard’s plants. This of course was long before today’s era of internet shopping.
Helen Ballard died in 1995, aged 87, ending that first – and perhaps greatest – era of breeding hellebores. Two years later Schmiemann published a book on her life and plants. She herself died in 2023. Helen’s home, Old Country Farm, is today run as a Bed & Breakfast by her daughter Ella, and remains pretty much as it was when Helen lived there. The border of hellebores at the farm is shown at the top of the page.
Today hellebores are among the ‘hottest’ flowers with gardeners, and there is a profusion available – so many that choice is difficult. The development of tissue culture revolutionized their propagation, so that instead of waiting years to make a few divisions, hundreds of plants can be produced from a single seedling. As well – and this is worth noting – many plants are also grown from seed. So plants bearing the name ‘Helen Ballard’ in one form or another, may not be her originals at all, but plants that have gone through several generations of growth from seedlings – still charming, but not to be compared with the originals. The correct name for these should be ‘Helen Ballard Strain’, but not all nurseries follow that.
So when choosing plants, look for named varieties, as these will always give you the best results. For general garden planting, though, to take advantage of the value of hellebores as groundcover under large shrubs, or in woodland areas, lower-priced seedlings are perfect. Enjoy the named ones inr higher profile areas or to grow in pots. Plants in pots can be brought into a cool porch or sheltered spot, so that the purity and beauty of their blooms can be enjoyed for the longest possible time.
*For a selection of some of the best Hellebores for your garden, mostly hardy from zone 5 to zone 8, check out our Hellebores page, devoted to them, which also includes details on growing them – it’s both easy and rewarding.
*If you feel inspired to know more about Helen Ballard and her breeding, there is an book by Gisela Schmeimann, written in English, called ‘Helen Ballard, the Hellebore Queen’. The similarity with the title of this blog is entirely coincidental. The link is given merely to show the book, with no intention of suggesting this particular source. This book is also available through other sources, such as second-hand book dealers.