Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 2.12.2009


World Class
Exceptional hybrid hellebores found locally
By Rachel Foster

Northwest Garden Nursery has long been a favorite destination for savvy gardeners. People come from all over to view the glorious garden and salivate over the nursery’s inventory of desirable perennials. As word spread that the nursery was phasing out most of that inventory and, except for spring open days, closing to the public, gardeners mourned. But owners Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne now specialize in breeding garden hybrid hellebores (commonly called Lenten rose), and the plants they offer are among the finest in the world.

Marietta says she became hooked on hybrid hellebores when she saw the gorgeous photos in The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores by Rice and Strangman (Timber Press, 1993). She was soon making her own crosses between selected plants in the nursery garden. In 2003, the O’Byrnes got serious, traveling to Europe to acquire the best available breeding stock, including their first double-flowered plants and, in Marietta’s words, “some wonderful clean colors, including the best blacks.”

Look at the nursery’s website ( to see where the O’Byrnes have taken those colors. Marietta now focuses on crosses within selected color groups, continually aiming to improve the clarity of color, the vigor of the plant and foliage quality. She also breeds for subtle traits such as interesting backs to the tepals (the proper name for the petal-like flower parts). That’s what you mostly you see in the garden, since the flowers hang downward. 

The breeding process is tedious and a lot of work. I asked Marietta what she likes best about the process. “Pollination,” she answered. “I like taking my time selecting flowers to cross. I enjoy looking inside the flowers, especially now that I make crosses with the plants on a table in the greenhouse!” She pollinates each chosen flower before it opens, applying pollen two or three times to ensure good seed production. In April she bags the pollinated flowers to catch the ripened seed.

Every stock plant has a number. Ernie keeps a book of “mug shots” and another with a full description of each plant. Seed from selected groups of plants is pooled and transferred to yogurt containers. The seed must not dry out and has to be sown while fresh. The O’Byrnes try to finish the job by early June. Most seeds germinate by January, and seedlings are transplanted when the first true leaves appear. It takes up to three years from seed to produce a saleable plant in flower.

Hellebores like those you see at Northwest Garden Nursery are not cheap. Double-flowered plants cost even more, both because they produce less seed and because some offspring will inevitably come out single. But garden hybrid hellebores are long-lived, shade loving, healthy and adaptable. They start to bloom in January and continue until May; they have handsome evergreen leaves, and deer don’t eat them. At the nursery, you get to choose among hundreds of unique plants in bloom. Quite a bargain, I’d say.

Northwest Garden Nursery will be open for hellebore sales on Feb. 14 & 15, Feb. 21 & 22, and Feb. 28 & March 1. After that, the nursery will be open Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, each week until April 10. Check the website for directions or call 935-3915. 

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden writer and consultant. She can be reached at