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RARIFIED BREED

South Boston News
Dick Tyler (above) and wife Judith own Pine Knot Farms, just outside Clarksville. The greenhouse operation specializes in Hellebores, an avocation that has drawn national media coverage from the likes of The Wall Street Journal and Better Homes and Gardens.
SoVaNow.com / March 18, 2013
From their unassuming ways, one would never know that Dick and Judith Tyler are celebrities in a rarified world of horticulture.

Yet the Tylers have drawn glowing coverage recently from The Wall Street Journal, Martha Stewart Living and Better Homes and Gardens for their specialized knowledge of the Hellebore, one of winter’s most captivating plants because of the flower’s bloom time in late winter and early spring.

The couple breeds Hellebores at their Clarksville-area business, Pine Knot Farm Perennials. A small sign on Rock Church Road announces the presence of the nursery, which is also the site of the Tylers’ home. From this rustic outpost, the Tylers penned, along with C. Colston Burrell, what has been called the “definitive book” on Hellebores. In 2007, it won the American Horticulture Society Award for outstanding garden-related books.

As Dick Tyler describes the plant and their breeding efforts, as he strolls among the greenhouses and beds overflowing with different varieties of Hellebores, one quickly comes to understand why he and his wife are leading experts on the plant. It is more than the fact that they have their own species of Hellebores, PK Select and Pine Knot Southern Belles.

A Hellebore, Dick Tyler explains, is a long-blooming flowering plant found primarily in England, Western Europe, and the Balkans. It is commonly known as the Christmas rose and the Lenten rose. Despite the name, the plants are not part of the rose family of flowers. Tyler also explains how the Hellebore flower is more like the bracts on a poinsettia, not petals at all, and that is why their “blooms” last as long as they do.

He’ll explain that Hellebores grown from seed may not look the same as the plant which produced the seeds. “The Lenten Rose comes from ten different species, and the seeds have many different recessive genes, which show up in the breeding,” he notes.

While demonstrating how Judith, with a small paint brush, patiently removes pollen from one plant and combines it with another — “performing the work of bees” — Dick Tyler shows how Hellebores can be developed to stay true to a specific color or bloom type as they reproduce.

Finally, he’ll share some folklore, that the plants were used to treat depression and “women’s issues” in medieval times.

Tyler agrees that it is odd to breed a plant that generally hates clay soil in Southside Virginia. However, he says, Hellebores have many other qualities that outshine that one limitation. They can tolerate dry conditions. They are fairly disease resistant. They are not the favorite food of deer and rabbits, and they deliver a profusion of blooms at a time when much of the garden is dormant.

The Tylers’ fascination with the plant began almost with the opening of their nursery in the 1980s. Fellow nursery owners and friends from Bishop, Ga. sold the Tylers their first Hellebore. The plants were not as trendy as they are now — their popularity continues to grow in the United States. Still, Hellebores fit with the nursery’s emphasis at that time for shade-tolerant plants.

A trip to England in the 1990s cemented their love affair with the plant. While there, the Tylers visited several gardens featuring Hellebores and discovered the extent of the Hellebore breeding program. He and Judith returned to Southside Virginia with a new focus and mission — to develop a breeding program for Hellebores in the United States.

Over the years, the two worked with the J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, N.C. and with a grower and breeder from Washington State, Elizabeth Stangman. They also traveled extensively throughout the Balkans, collecting new and different strains of Hellebores.

They sell their hellebores at plant shows and by mail order. However, twice each year, during peak Hellebore bloom time, the Tylers open their farm to the public for viewing and the sale of plants. The “Hellebore Festival” is always the last weekend in February and the first weekend in March. For those who cannot make it to the festival, you can see and order plants over the internet at http://www.pineknotfarms.com.

You can also use that same site to view different plants and learn all you need to know about hellebores, with information on their care.

The former tobacco farm that has been in Judith’s family for six generations is now a pre-eminent Hellebore nursery and the site of gardens where the Tylers celebrate the plant they have come to love.



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