Gardeners Gather in Bucks County for Hellebore Show and Tell

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At Fordhook Farm in Bucks County, Pa., the first Hellebore Open in the Northeast is under way. It's an open house for gardeners who collect new and rare plant varieties. George Ball, owner of Fordhook Farm, describes one of these show-stopping plants, the Heronswood Hellebore.


At Fordhook Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the first Hellebore Open in the Northeast got underway Friday. It's not a golf tournament, car race, nor is it an equestrian event. This is an open house for gardeners who, like stamp collectors, look for new and rare varieties. So stand aside, poppies and lilies - the Heronswood Hellebore Perennial Collection took first, second and third prize at the Philly Flower Show. George Ball is the proprietor of Fordhook Farm, a third-generation seed man, president of W. Atlee Burpee Company, past president of the American Horticultural Society, and on the phone.

Mr. Ball, without getting too technical, give us a picture of a hellebore.

Mr. GEORGE BALL (President, W. Atlee Burpee Seed Company): Well, a hellebore is a woodland perennial plant that has a fleshy stem, and it pops up a rather nodding, beautiful anemone-like flower head that - there's a little group of flowers that nod slightly downward. It's part of a group of - the Ranunculus group - that was - Biblical scholars believe was the lilies of the field.

HANSEN: Oh, so it's like a lily?

Mr. BALL: It's not like a lily, it's actually just a, sort of, a delicate flower that blows in the wind, and that's what the anemone group is known for, and this is part of that group. It's just a very delicate woodland plant that pops up. And the key with the hellebore is that it's extremely early. It can sometimes, in a mild winter, pop up in November and bloom right on through. But it gets its name, the Christmas Rose, in warmer climates, and the Lenten Rose, by its tendency to bloom around the holidays. And its most popular version is the Lenten Rose, which blooms about Ash Wednesday every year and blooms right on through until the end of Easter season.

HANSEN: What color?

Mr. BALL: It comes in a variety of colors, mainly, kind of, a matte pastel. But it ranges from green through to lavender and pink and yellow and then on through to black. It is - there is even a dark, purplish black that's really quite striking. And it's beloved by collectors for the reasons of its extreme variation in flower color, so we've been breeding them for about 15 years now.

HANSEN: Are they easy to propagate?

Mr. BALL: Yes, they are. They grow very quickly and they spread fairly well. They have a delicate quality, a very fleshy quality. They're very tender, and you almost, like, want to mother them. That's what the hellebore is kind of all about.

HANSEN: And how many types do you have in the event? How many orphans are looking for mothers this weekend?

Mr. BALL: About 20 different cultivars or 20 different varieties. It's a big genus. There's about 10 species in the genus, and so you can have everything from the black, to the green, to the double-flowered red, which we won the awards for in the Philly Flower Show. So we've got a whole bunch of different types, and we've got thousands of plants and we're selling them like hotcakes. It's really extraordinary.

HANSEN: George Ball is the president of the Burpee Seed Company and proprietor of Fordhook Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in Doylestown, and it's site of the 2007 Hellebore Open House. Thanks a lot, Mr. Ball.

Mr. BALL: Happy gardening.

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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