Hellebore heaven: Sunshine Farm

Hellebore seedling with picotee edge and nectariesIt was in Philadelphia, at my first Garden Writer’s Symposium, during the lunch this bright, generous group of garden experts holds to welcome newcomers to their wonderful event, that I first met Barry Glick. I may be maligning him, but it’s my firm belief that he was just pretending to be a fresher so he wouldn’t miss out on any of the fun. I was prepared for a few surprises, but not quite this one.

Barry introduced himself as the King of Hellebores and, as proof, whipped out his business card, handing it to me with a flourish. Sure enough, the picture showed him dressed in full regalia, with robes, crown & an ornately carved staff, posing against a carpet of hellebores. I’m not sure The Queen would have fallen for it, but I have less experience with royalty, and a weakness for hellebores, so I was hooked.

Barry painted a scene of his mountaintop hellebore nursery Sunshine Farm in Greenbrier County, West Virginia that sounded irresistible. I made up my mind that one day, I’d pay him a visit and explore his vast hellebore collection for myself.

I live in England, so not exactly in the neighbourhood, but just a few years later, I was back in Philadelphia to visit their world famous flower show, with a little free time on my hands. I’d been thrilled to discover that the flower show had an English theme: garden gnome-sized models of Her Majesty The Queen were hidden in the displays of plants and flowers for visitors to find. Perhaps it was some kind of sign I should pay my overdue visit to the King of Hellebores?

It took two days for my sweetheart and I to get there. We had to abandon our first attempt in favour of spending a very sleety day holed up in Washington, DC. The snowstorm had been sudden and the next day, as we tried again, I’d never seen so many fallen pine trees along one highway.

It seemed crazy, but lured by a rare chance to see Barry – and his many thousands of hellebores at their peak of flower – we pressed on. The last leg saw us winding precariously up a narrow road on a snowy mountainside to an extremely welcome sight: Barry, kindly waiting to take us in his snowplough up the otherwise impassable, steep driveway to his home and nursery.

We had another fairly arduous drive the next day, and night was drawing in, so our time with Barry, his family menagerie and his hellebores would be much too brief.

The mountainside was liberally covered in hellebores, though they were pretty much submerged. We made our way round to the breeding greenhouses, accompanied by a bounding dog or two that, just like the hellebores, seemed perfectly happy in the snow. The greenhouses were overflowing with prize specimens of hellebores Barry had selected out for making new crosses: singles, semis, doubles and anemone flowered; picotees, spotted, clear and veined; in almost every shade you can imagine.

Barry explained he was working with many distinct colour groups – I think he may have said 14 or even 16 – as for many plant breeders, diversity plays a big part in whatever drives him. He’s particularly fascinated by flowers that have mutated to create the effect of tiny, double winter roses, true to the old folk name for hellebores. I’ll leave Barry, if ever you meet him, to explain how the coloured bits of hellebores aren’t really petals, so they aren’t doubles in the usual sense. He’s an erudite and entertaining speaker who gives talks about his specialist subjects around the country.

I only had time for a few quick pictures, taken almost at random, as I wandered round in an overdose of plant rapture. We admired the many other choice and unusual breeding specimens that this passionate plantsman was also treasuring inside (mainly cyclamens, native plants and shade-loving perennials) before it was time to leave.

I haven’t shared many pictures from that day till now. It might have helped if I hadn’t been quite as excited to see so many hellebores, each one different from its neighbour. As with so many shade plants, they have a demure beauty: you need to pass from flower to flower, lifting up their nodding heads to see what’s inside.

I don’t seem to have been sure whether to focus my camera on the petals or on the stamens. But in truth, it’s one of those occasions where I’m happy to have been caught up in the magic of the experience, rather than worrying too much about photography.

As this plant collection is so special – and so far from the beaten track – I’ve finally put together a small gallery of helleborus hybrids from Sunshine Farm:

If you’ve visited him yourself and have better pictures, I’d love to see them. You’ll find all about Barry’s specialist shade plant nursery online at www.sunfarm.com. I encourage you to make the journey one day so you can see the hellebores flowering for yourself, ideally in milder weather!

All too soon, it was hugs all round as we said a sad but very fond farewell to our raconteur friend, and set off down the mountain on the next leg of our gardening journey, to visit Brent and Becky Heath’s wonderful bulb nursery. I’ll tell you about that another day.

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