Helleborus vesicarius Aucher
It seems unlikely that a hellebore could have much in common with a bulb or a tumbleweed but preconceptions are made to be confounded and here we have a plant which does just that. It hardly looks like a hellebore, the unsuspecting might link it with the buttercup or even with celery, and when most hellebores are in full leaf this plant is nowhere to be seen. Neither would we suspect hellebores of distributing their seeds by means of the wind blowing the capsules along the ground. But H. vesicarius is a summer dormant plant whose seeds are spread on the wind.
A distinctive, summer dormant plant reaching about 18in (45cm) in height with fleshy stems arching outwards from the crown. There are both basal and stem leaves. Growth begins in November and the mature basal leaves are rather soft and fleshy and shining green in colour. Each leaf has three main divisions, the outer two being themselves immediately divided in two and each leaflet being strongly but irregularly divided then lobed. The foliage curls back at the edges by flowering time. The petiole may be up to 10in (25cm) in length, the leaf itself up to 8in (20cm) wide and 7in (18cm) long. The stem leaves are similar but smaller and the bracts also similar but noticeably pale yellow-green compared to the rest of the foliage. The general appearance of the foliage is very much that of a luxuriant buttercup or celery plant.
Flowering occurs in February, March and April, the individual flowers looking very similar to those of H. foetidus. They are gathered in twos and threes at the ends of the branched stems and are rather upright at first before turning downwards. Each flower is about 2/3in (18mm) long and 1/3in (10mm) wide, sometimes a little larger, and more or less cylindrical in shape. Each is green inside and out but shaded purple or chocolate brown towards the tip and sometimes for as much as half the length of each petal. The colour may be maroon, slightly hazy purple, greeny purple or a stronger purple shade and the petals may be tipped with green so the purple zone appears as a horizontal stripe.
The fruits are spectacular and the most showy feature of the plant. They start to develop in April and by May the three capsules, which are joined along their full length, become highly inflated to form a single balloon-like fruit which eventually reaches 3in (7.5cm) in length. As they mature and become drier the seed pods change from green to fawn to a bleached brown shade and become brittle; the stems then collapse and the wind blows the whole fruit away.
Apart from the individual flowers, which are similar in general appearance to those of H. foetidus, just about everything is distinctive. The growth cycle, the foliage, the fruits and its distribution mark it out from all other hellebores.
Natural distribution and habitat
Helleborus vesicarius grows only in one small area straddling the border between southern Turkey and northern Syria, especially in the Amanus mountains south of Maras and across the Syrian border. It grows on exposed hillsides on alkaline soil, sometimes in clearings in scrub, in areas where the dry summers produce a generally dormant summer vegetation. In the same way that the bulbs with which it grows are adapted to these inhospitable conditions, H. vesicarius retains moisture in its fleshy roots and starts to grow again with the autumn rains.
In the Amanus mountains Jeremy Wood has found this plant growing amongst both Paliurus and Quercus scrub where its companions included Acanthus syriacus, a large flowered form of Corydalis solida, Crocus ancyrensis, Crocus biflorus, Cyclamen pseudibericum, Galanthus fosteri, Onosma albo-roseum and Scilla sibirica. John Watson, writing of a trip to the same area in 1966, reports Astragalus angustifolius, Hypericum lydium and Iberis pruitii as cohabitees on a hillside featuring 'a sudden chalky extrusion of hummocks, dips and soft scree'. Michael Almond also reports a large flowered form of Corydalis solida amongst its companions in the Amanus range together with Cyclamen pseudibericum, Fritillaria alfredae subsp. glaucoviridis, Hyacinthus orientalis subsp. orientalis, a white form of Primula vulgaris and Scilla ingridae.
Martyn Rix has found it in the Gaziantep area and here it was growing in the open, though sheltered by limestone rocks, in company with Iris histrio and Ranunculus asiaticus plus a yellow umbellifer and a Muscari species. On the Nurdag in a mud stone area he found it growing in Quercus scrub along with a Crocus species, Cyclamen coum, Fritillaria alfredae subsp. glaucoviridis, Iris persica, Putoria calabrica and Ranunculus asiaticus.
Other plants which have been noted growing with H. vesicarius include Arum dioscoridis as well as various iris, crocus and fritillarias.
This species behaves rather like a Mediterranean bulb, breaking into growth in November and starting to die back towards the end of June. The foliage is fleshy and slightly frost tender so it is best grown in bulb frame or a Mediterranean bed in the greenhouse for winter protection. A compost of equal parts loam, peat and grit is suitable. In a bulb frame it pays to mulch with crisp, dry leaves or dry bracken to give added protection from harsh weather. In the greenhouse, plants can be covered with sheets of newspaper on cold nights.
It can also be grown in a large, deep pot in the same compost with two or three Osmocote granules per 4in (10cm) pot of compost. In very cold conditions when the foliage may be tipped by frost, beware of botrytris; aphids may also be a problem. Whenever conditions are warm enough give the plants as much air as possible.
At Kew this species is grown in a raised bed about 21/2ft (75cm) high filled with gritty compost and thrives without protection. The bed is surrounded by grass so frost drainage in such a situation is good and the site is also well sheltered.
Hybrids with other species are not known so hand pollination would be unnecessary were it not for the fact that leaving the bees to do the job seems to produce no seed whatsoever. Even when hand pollinated the results are unpredictable, but success seems more likely if different plants are crossed rather than one individual selfed. Martin Rix has grown this plant in a bulb frame for many years and it sets seed regularly. Elizabeth Strangman grew plants from the next generation but they were reluctant to set seed and even when hand pollinated only a very few seeds are set. Perhaps as more gardeners grow more generations of plants it will prove more amenable to cultivation.
Seed seems able to retain its viability for much longer than other species, seedlings have been known to germinate five years after sowing. As you might expect from a plant of such distinctive habits, the seedlings develop in a different way to those of other hellebores.
In their first winter all that develops above ground is two large seed leaves but below soil level a pea-sized resting bud together with long fleshy roots is formed. The plant remains in this state until the following autumn when the first true leaves appear and after three or four years the plant will flower. In view of this pattern of growth it is advisable to leave the new seedlings undisturbed for two winters. It is interesting to note the similarity in its germination behaviour with that of its relative Eranthis hyemalis.
The seed is best space-sown 2in (5cm) apart and the seedlings allowed to produce their seed leaves and die down. They are then pricked out into 4-5in (10-12.5cm) long toms as they start to grow at the beginning of their second year; the tops of the pots should be well gritted. It pays to keep the seedlings growing as long as possible during their first winter and spring to help build up their resting buds and although the seedlings must be kept on the dry side do not let them dry out completely, occasional water will be needed.
In the frame or greenhouse bed this species can be grown with the large range of bulbs requiring similar conditions, especially those with which it grows in the wild such as Crocus biflorus, cyclamen, fritillarias, Geranium tuberosum and Narcissus fernandesii.