Garden Visit to Kapunda Plants, Bath

Kapunda Plants can be found on the edge of Bath in the grounds of Kapunda House, the home of Juliet Davis and her husband.  On a recent visit to the gardens Juliet told the assembled Shepton Horties that no one is absolutely sure where the name Kapunda came from, but it could derive either from the Barossa Valley in Australia or from South Africa.  What she did know about the mock castle house is that it was built in 1906 with two acres of gardens surrounding it.

In 1988 Juliet and her husband undertook a house-swap with her in-laws, and she found herself with a garden on her hands.   Enrolling on a gardening course Juliet began by redesigning the south terrace of the property and her enthusiasm for gardening grew.

Somewhere along the way she found herself increasingly mesmerised by Lenten Hellebores; one of the most-named for the time of year when they flower.  These plants originated in Turkey and the former Yugoslavia – there they are found in mountainous regions under the canopy of trees.  Their propagation as garden plants was slow – but various British breeders started hybridising them in the 20th century including Helen Ballard in the 1950s and Elizabeth Strangman of the Washfield Nursery in Kent in the 1970s and 80s.

Singles were hybridised into doubles, and the colour palette was extended from the original white and purple.

Juliet’s own interest in hybridising eventually turned into obsession, and by 2003 she had started specialising in Hellebores and Kapunda Plants was born.

On the visit to the garden the Horties got to see established plants in flower, from the purest white, through greens, pinks and purples to a slate-like black.

We also quickly learnt that to breed these beautiful spring flowers you need incredible levels of patience and dedication.  Juliet hand-pollinates her plants, which involves waiting for the perfect time to extract pollen from one plant, using tweezers, and then transferring it to the sticky stigma in another, just as the bud is opening.  This is difficult enough with the single-flowering varieties, but with the more ruffled doubles, it is even more tricky.

Between February and March the plants will drop their seed, which Juliet has to catch, sow, and keep in a cool part of the garden until December.  Then the pots come into the greenhouse and hopefully start sprouting seedlings (they will often need a warm followed by a cold cycle to germinate).  Then they are potted on, and next spring go outside into nursery beds for their first two years.  After that they’re moved onto another bed but may only flower after 3-4 years.  It’s only then that Juliet will finally see what kind of flower and plant the cross has resulted in.

Lenten Hellebores do not divide well so if, after four years, she has come up with a stunning slaty-black flower then there is often no way to repeat the successful cross – it’s all a bit pot luck!

Here are Juliet’s tips for growing Lenten Hellebores:

  • They don’t like full sun – in the wild they grow under the canopy of trees.
  • Feed them well, they are very hungry plants, with big, fleshy roots. If you don’t feed them every year they will remain as a small clump. If you do feed them then you get wonderful flowers.
  • Juliet uses home made compost and Blood, Fish and Bone and feeds in February and September.
  • Take the flowers off after they fade.
  • Remove old leaves at the end of January, just before they are about to flower again.
  • They are hard to dig up – the fleshy roots go down a long way – and they don’t divide well, but you can transplant them. If you want to transplant them then do this in September.
  • Keep an eye out for aphids, they can he a problem, especially on H. corsicus.

NB Some snowdrops were also out during the visit and two of the most impressive at that time of year were Sam Arnott and Magnet (the latter hybridized by James Allen in Shepton Mallet).

link to photo album:

Photographs and notes by Dominic Weston