The Hullabaloo over Hellebores

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An interview last week with George Ball, owner of the Heronswood Nursery, garnered a small amount of outrage. Listeners protested that Ball was improperly taking credit for his prize-winning Heronswood Hellebores. Ketzel Levine explains the controversy.


Last week, we thought we were taking you for a walk through the flowers - spring-blooming hellebores, to be exact. But it turns out we walked into a swamp. Our interview with Burpee Seed Company president and Heronswood Nursery owner George Ball discussing his prize-winning Heronswood hellebores garnered a small amount of outrage. Listeners protested that Ball was taking credit that was just not his to take.

Here to put the flower record straight is NPR senior correspondent Ketzel Levine, also known as our doyenne of dirt. Good to have you with us, Ketzel.

KETZEL LEVINE: Thank you so much, Lynn.

NEARY: So what's this all about, Ketzel? Tell us.

LEVINE: Okay. George Ball bought Heronswood Nursery in 2000. When he bought it, he bought the plants and reputation of one of the country's most celebrated plantsman, Dan Hinkley, who owned Heronswood up until that point. Okay, so Hinkley introduced innumerable plants into horticulture through his plant expeditions and his plant breeding programs. Among the plants he and his staff bred were the hellebores that Mr. Ball collected prizes for at the Philadelphia Flower Show.

So when Mr. Ball said, and I quote, "we've been breeding them for 15 years," he was certainly in his rights, because he owns Heronswood. But in fact, he had nothing to do with the breeding.

NEARY: Well, what is the process for breeding this kind of a flower? How complicated is it?

LEVINE: It's pretty complicated. The head propagator who was working for Mr. Hinkley for a decade is a gentleman named Eric Hammond, okay. Eric now owns Heritage Seedlings in Salem, Oregon. So this is what Mr. Hammond would go through: He's in his greenhouse, he's got tweezers in his hand, he carefully takes pollen from some gorgeous male hellebore like a stud from a famous nursery in England, and he applies that pollen to a luscious female who might be from Germany.

So he waits two years to see what his creation turns out to be. He doesn't like the color, it's not quite burgundy enough, and so he repeats the process with another male and another female, and he does this over and over again over the process of seven, eight, nine, 10 years until that new flower is just what he's after.

NEARY: Wow, I had no idea it took that long.

LEVINE: And it's more complicated even than that, Lynn, because as a propagator, he's also working on hundreds if not thousands of other plant pollinations. So the records this guy's got to keep have to be scrupulously clear about the plant's parentage, and that's the kind of effort that went into making the Heronswood hellebores and why credit must be given where it's due.

NEARY: NPR's Ketzel Levine from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon. Thanks for being with us, Ketzel.

LEVINE: My pleasure, Lynne.


NEARY: This is NPR News.

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