Hellebore troubles

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Hellebores can make such a huge impact as they flower so much earlier than anything else. Try cutting them though and they hang their heads so limply as to put you off ever trying again. The only way to cut them is to float them in water as in the picture above.
They are easy enough but I find that many of ours are dying out. Given my interest in long-term plant performance I have been monitoring this and discussing it with other gardeners. The consensus is that from about ten years onwards many do go into a decline. This is not surprising as they seed (or can do) so extensively which suggests something which is not going to be with us for ever. So, all the plants I paid such good money for from Ashwood Nurseries and Wendy Perry all those years ago are now pretty well vanished. They initially seeded well – I dug a load up and planted them out, leaving many others to grow in the bed.
The seedlings I have left, i.e. next to their parents, have never really taken off. Despite it looking like initially they would smother everything else, they have never gotten that big and are now beginning to die too. All I can think is that they cannot cope with the competition of the roots of the overgrown hedge behind them. The very best ones are right up the top where the hedge is further back. Elsewhere in the garden we have a few magnificent plants, but always well away from shade or tree roots.
So, a bit of a crisis for something that was always such a feature of the garden in late winter. The seedlings I had dug up seven or so years ago have done well, breeding relatively true from seed, so we have had some good plants to move elsewhere or give away. It was interesting to note however the difference in vigour and how this was linked to flower colour (genes on the same chromosome?). I had set out the seedlings in order of size in a nursery bed, and all the largest ones turned out to be red, which actually is the least interesting colour of all. The picotees seem particularly lacking in umph. In looking at this lot the other day, I realise that there is only one in the nursery bed left which was worth doing anything with, a very spotty white. So I divided it, feeling as if I was taking the plant’s life in my hands as they do not divide well, and you do end up doing terrible damage to them, crushing flowers and leaves as you do so. Hopefully the rather miserable looking divisions with a few leaves sticking out at odd angles will take. The roots are most active in the late winter, when they flower, so this is the best time to carry out this perilous operation.
These seedlings had originally been collected from around good plants, the seeds being so heavy that you can be pretty sure which plant a seedling has come from. I tried to find some more around good ones this year, but it is a struggle, and even when very small, the seedlings have very long roots and can be difficult to extricate from the ground.
I shall have to try to save seed again this year, but this is not easy, because as soon as it is ripe it seems to hurl itself out of the seed pods. I have tried tying little muslin bags (thanks to eBay I now have a whole packet of these) around the maturing pods but they are actually too small – I need the next size up.
Going to buy expensive seed from Ashwood or Jelitto or somebody is going to feel like a defeat, let alone having to take out a mortgage to buy new plants. So we shall have to develop a Hellebore Conservation Action Plan.

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