Margaret Lauterbach

Oregon gardeners go worldwide for love of Hellebores (Lenten roses)

Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne’s book is available on Amazon and at retail stores.
Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne’s book is available on Amazon and at retail stores.

Some people love to garden, others consider it drudgery. I belong to the former group, loving to get hands in soil, digging and pulling weeds, and/or planting seeds or seedlings. Outdoor air, tiny insects searching for food or moisture, birds singing and a beloved dog basking in warm sunshine are the milieu in which you are intellectually challenged by Mother Nature. Is this plant in the right place? Will it be destroyed by harsh wind or direct sun? Destructive insects? Deer? Gophers or voles? Will it survive winter? How much water will it need? Will it require supplemental feeding?

Marietta and Ernie O’Byrne, who garden near Eugene, Oregon, love to garden, and it shows in their 70-acre wonderland. They’ve just authored a new book, “A Tapestry Garden,” that’s quite fitting for their almost pointillist ornamental gardens. It’s nothing like the Bayeaux Tapestry, but it highlights a different array of plants at every turn. It didn’t happen overnight, or come easily. Burst pipes, a chimney fire, and a startled goat bursting through a window and landing on the kitchen table toughened them up for garden disappointments that followed.

They enjoyed their early spring bulb blossoms for a couple of years before meadow voles found that underground banquet. Trees blew over, sapsuckers riddled bark of trees, soil-borne verticillium wilt killed trees, their soil proved too acidic for some plants and so on. They learned a lot from their mistakes. Undaunted, they planted other, more appropriate and hardier plants to replace those they’d lost.

They had so much practical experience with so many different genera and species that they went into the nursery business. Some of us aren’t even aware that we have favorite plants until we realize how many of one kind we do have. That happened to the authors of “A Tapestry Garden,” alerting them to how much they loved Hellebores. Popularly known as Lenten roses, they have two genetically diverse species: one with stemmed flowers, the other without. H. hybridus is said to be stemless other than leaf and flower stalk. Those of this species cross freely with one another, but do not cross with the stemmed varieties, H. niger (Christmas rose), H. lividus, or H. argutifolius. H. foetidus, a very common variety, doesn’t cross with anything else, apparently. Those we call “flowers” are really colored bracts, surrounding the tiny flowers.

They took opportunity to travel to England with other Helleborus fanciers, to visit one of the main breeders in the world at Ashwood Nurseries at Kingswinford, where they bought a number of unusual H. x hybridus specimens to use at home. They also visited Hellebore breeders in Holland and Germany, buying more plants to ship home. Their purchases survived the shipping and plant inspection delay, and now form the basis of their present focus, breeding Hellebores for wholesaling to nurseries. Hellebores bloom in winter, so Winter Jewels is a great name for them.

Their book includes outstanding photos of some of their offerings, such as Winter Jewels Cotton Candy, Winter Jewels Rose Quartz (a gorgeous double bloom) and Winter Jewels Amethyst Gem. They have beds of Helleborus in their foliage-filled gardens, but their breeding stock is netted against bee pollination.

If you grow Hellebores, and many of us in this area do, you know the flowers face the ground, not upward where passers-by could admire them. Why do these flowers have that habit? Because rain or watering would rot their pollen. They thrive in cool weather, and undeterred by gray skies, they start their colorful blossoming in very early spring, continuing to bloom for about two months. Then it’s time for crocus, winter aconite, snowdrops, tulips and daffodils to take on the mantle of coloring our world.

Visit their website at northwestgardennursery.com. They do retail selling on two weekends in February and March, but if you want to stay here and buy their beautiful Hellebores, talk to your favorite locally owned nursery about carrying their plants. Read about their gardening adventures in “A Tapestry Garden, the Art of Weaving Plants and Place,” published by Timber Press.

Send gardening questions to melauter@earthlink.net or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.

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