Harvington Hybrids – beautiful creations, which come in a variety of single and double forms – spotted, speckled, ruffled, plain, moody and angelic – you might buy one first, then another and so begins a lifetime’s obsession!
Welcome to the bright world of Hugh Nunn
Hugh Nunn’s life’s work has been to breed vibrant new strains of hellebores, erythroniums and trilliums. Val Bourne highlights his shade-loving progeny (in The Telegraph).
The Vale of Evesham is still a thriving area for growers, and in winter the greenhouses and packing sheds stand out even more prominently. The village of Harvington near Evesham is home to the Harvington hybrids, a superior strain of hellebores bred by Hugh Nunn with the support of his wife, Elizabeth. Three Himalayan birches in their front garden stand out starkly in winter light, displaying pristine silver bark. They symbolise Hugh Nunn’s love of trees and woodland plants.
Although most brilliant horticulturists seem to end their days at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the young Hugh Nunn bucked that trend; he worked there as an improver gardener for a spell in the North Arboretum after a two-year stint at a Suffolk nursery near his home. Three student years at Nottingham University’s School of Agriculture in Sutton Bonington introduced him to his future wife, a fellow student. Two years as a lecturer at Pershore College were followed by joint overseas agricultural projects in Nigeria and Borneo. Once they had children, Hugh returned to complete a doctorate at Wye College in Kent before setting up his own garden centre.
Hugh says: “Although good trees were easy to find, choice woodlanders were few and far between and there was a definite gap in the market.” When Hugh was appointed vice principal of Warwickshire College, the couple looked for a house with a couple of acres, and Harvington provided the perfect nursery site. Now the area behind their home is full of shade tunnels and neat outbuildings. This is the hub of the business, and 200,000 hellebore plants are raised here every year, along with choice trilliums and erythroniums.
I have often asked Hugh, a reserved and schoolmasterly man, for an interview and been politely refused. However, one day we found ourselves buying seed potatoes together and I felt the quiet reserve melt a little. Finally, I dredged up the courage to ask Elizabeth again and got permission.
As soon as I arrive, Hugh admits that he “prefers talking to plants more than people”. It is as a result of this diffidence that his remarkable contribution to hellebore breeding has never been fully recognised.
Hugh has managed to breed consistent strains of healthy hybrid hellebores for the trade in a variety of colours and flower forms. Harvington hybrids have several advantages: they are raised outside under airy shade tunnels (rather than warm glass) so they transfer from pot to garden with ease. They are sold as seedlings and flower for the first time at the point of sale so they are cheaper to buy and not yet pot-bound. The flowers are sumptuous, the foliage is healthy, self-seeded offspring are consistent with the parent – in fact, most of my best hellebores are Harvington hybrids.
And yet, as with all life’s big decisions, synchronicity and circumstance played more of a part than planning. When the Nunns arrived at Harvington in 1985 they found themselves living two doors away from Sarah, the daughter of Helen Ballard – the most famous hellebore breeder of all. Sarah, who has a pale cream hellebore named after her, befriended Elizabeth Nunn and took her to her mother’s world-famous Malvern nursery. Choice hellebores began to appear in the Nunns’ garden. Hugh cites Ballard’s words: “Probably there is no other group of hardy herbaceous perennials which can be relied on to give such a sumptuous, if subdued, display of colour in British gardens between December and April.”
Helen Ballard specialised in breeding rounded flowers in lucid, distinct colours, often using wild material she had collected with her husband, Philip. Her named plants were propagated by division and always in short supply, despite being eye-wateringly expensive. Worryingly, constant division was affecting their vigour. “They couldn’t be replicated by seed,” Hugh explains. “Most seedlings were a different colour and many had inferior flowers.”
Despite this, the Nunns knew that the only way to produce hybrid hellebores in commercial quantities was to grow them from seed. They also knew that reliable seed strains in different colours were not available. However, Hugh had the horticultural skills and the scientific know-how to take up the challenge.
“The first step was to acquire more breeding material,” he says, so he assembled apricots and picotees from Elizabeth Strangman (of the now defunct Washfield Nursery) and ‘Party Dress’ doubles from Robin White of Blackthorn Nursery. “All three growers were ahead of the field,” Hugh explains. “Our technique was to self-pollinate the best colours we could find and raise the progeny.” The Nunns soon gained a terrific advantage: they were able to produce a flowering plant within two years, much quicker than anyone else.
Each colour strain took at least eight years to produce and involved self-pollinating selected seedlings of at least four generations. The process was repeated until 100 per cent of the seedlings proved true to colour.
“Most of the time this process worked but there was an enormous amount of waste,” Hugh says. Seed-raised hybrid hellebores are naturally vigorous and virus-free. However, viruses can be spread by aphids, and great care is taken in the nursery to sterilise secateurs and other equipment to avoid spreading disease. Hugh says: “In the garden the best way to avoid problems is to feed your hellebores,” and he recommends mulching around established plants with well-rotted manure or compost once a year. A late-winter feed of general-purpose fertiliser (such as Vitax Q4HN) is also advised.
The shade houses on the nursery provide ideal growing conditions for two of Hugh’s enthusiasms forged at Kew – erythroniums and trilliums. “Erythronium flowers are graceful with elegant sweeping petals, and experience has taught me that they need low levels of nutrients. If you overfeed them, it scorches the roots. Woodland conditions and friable, well drained but moisture-retentive soil suit them best.”
‘Harvington Snow Goose’ is a selected seedling from E. californicum and it holds its white flowers well above the maroon-mottled foliage. The name ‘Snow Goose’ was chosen to reflect the feather-edged petals, and this tall erythronium (16in) has robust stems. The dainty ‘Harvington Wild Salmon’ (a named form of E. revolutum) is half the height with starry salmon pink flowers dancing above mottled leaves. ‘Hidcote Beauty’ is a vigorous lilac-pink originally spotted by Hugh in the famous Gloucestershire garden.
“This is the most vigorous erythronium we grow, and the substantial, mottled leaves are an outstanding feature. Leave your erythroniums alone for four to five years to proliferate before division, and do remember that the bulbs sink down deep into the ground,” Hugh says.
Trilliums are another Harvington speciality and many gardeners will remember the wizened little rhizomes that used to be available. They were usually dug up from the wild and allowed to dry out, so rarely thrived. David Elliott, once the plant adviser at RHS Wisley, asked Hugh Nunn to raise some plants from dry rhizomes. Hugh’s first mistake was to bury them too deeply. “The trick is to place them just under the surface, and if the plant needs to be deeper, contractile roots (rather like springs) will pull them downwards.” These North American woodlanders were also subjected to an eight-year breeding programme, and now the nursery supplies pot-grown trilliums. “The best time to divide them is in May,” Hugh says, “although it can be done up to August. Start with an established, pot-grown trillium with good roots. Give it leafy soil and make sure that the rhizome is close to the surface.” The easiest three are Trillium flexipes ‘Harvington Selection’ (white flowers held above green foliage), T. sulcatum (dark red flowers with green foliage) and T. grandiflorum – the white flowers protrude above green foliage. T. albidum is a sessile form with rose-scented white flowers and mottled foliage.
Hugh and Elizabeth’s daughter, Penny, is following in the family tradition. She has just started a mail-order business called Twelve Nunns supplying plugs of Harvington hellebores. The plant centre at RHS Wisley also stocks a full range of Harvington’s specialities, as do most good garden centres.
Where to buy
- Telegraph Gardening readers can buy three Helleborus Orientalis Mixed for £11.95 or buy six for £19.90 and save £4. Please send orders to Telegraph Garden Service, Dept. TL203, 14 Hadfield Street, Old Trafford, Manchester, M16 9FG. Cheques/Postal orders should be made payable to Telegraph Garden Service or call 0161 848 1106 for debit/credit card orders. Please quote ref. TL203 when placing your order. To order online visit www.gardenshop.telegraph.co.uk/offers. We regret we are unable to dispatch our goods to the Channel Islands or the Republic of Ireland. Delivery within 28 days. Plants supplied in 9cm pots.
- For hellebore plugs by mail order, contact Twelve Nunns Nursery. The nursery is not open to visitors (07922 271791; www.twelvenunns.co.uk).
Plants available at Long Acre Plants, Charlton Musgrove, Somerset BA9 8EX (01963 32802; www.plantsforshade.co.uk).