Jelena de Belder – Her Plants Live on

The hydrangeas (Hyd. paniculata) were in full bloom when Dale and I met Jelena in the summer of 1996. We met her at Hemelrijk, her family estate near Antwerp, Belgium. As she shuttled us about the grounds in her beat up VW Rabbit, filled with pots, shovels and plants, we soon realized we were in the presence of someone special. Her every word was filled with passion.  With the pride of a mother she introduced us to the hydrangeas she and her husband had developed; ‘Pink Diamond’, ‘Unique’, The Swan, ‘Burgundy Lace’, ‘White Moth’ and her personal favorite ‘Little Lamb’. “This is a very special plant,” she told us, “Little lambs dancing about in joy. Very special.” 

On another visit, we had arrived at the peak of the witch hazel bloom. The DeBelder’s had been collecting and breeding witch hazels for over 40 years and they had hundreds of plants under evaluation scattered about the estate. The cool foggy air was saturated with the sweet smell of witch hazel blooms. Under towering beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) we walked her estate and across the last fleeting patches of melting snow. With amazement we gazed at the rich and diverse colors of those spider-like blooms; yellow of course, but also various shades of orange, red and even purple! A farmer with his Belgian draft horse, steam shooting from his nostrils, crossed our path to complete the most perfect picture. Dale and I looked at each other as if to say “Could life be more perfect?”

Our trips to Hemelrijk were always magical. Her passion for plants and her passion for life were heartfelt and contagious. If you shared this passion, Jelena was your friend. Not just a casual acquaintance, but rather, it was as if you had known her since her youthful school days in Slovenia. Once, I had the pleasure of bringing my wife Tracy to Hemelrijk. For years I had shared my stories of Jelena and her plants, but now she would live them first hand. It was a cool summer morning and Jelena, dressed in a bathrobe, greeted us, hugged Tracy and promptly handed us a basket of peas to shuck while she dressed. No need for pretense, we were among friends. Soon afterwards, Jelena took Tracy by the hand and led her through the garden, sharing her love for each plant along the path. Watching them together it was hard to believe that they had just met that very morning.

To the end, Jelena remained youthful. Almost exactly five years later, we received word that Jelena had died while swimming in the Adriatic Sea. She was 78 years young. Memories flooded back is a rush; the taste of her rose petal lemonade, sipping homemade pear wine, and the rich taste of Belgian chocolate and strong coffee shared together sitting by the fireplace after a long garden walk. I recalled my excitement at seeing the original ‘Unique’ hydrangea and the original ‘Diana’ witch hazel and standing side by side with the person that brought  these lovely plants into the yards and gardens of the world.    

I wish that I could take you to Hemelrijk, to meet Jelena, just as I had taken Tracy there. I am certain that Jelena would have made you feel special. She would have willed you to appreciate the beauty of every plant along the garden path. But I cannot. So we must be content with her legacy; the beauty and magic of her plants; a gift to gardeners everywhere. Her plants live on, and so Jelena lives on too.


  1. Thank you for a fantastic look into the life of an amazing woman. Definitely sounds like one of those women who was a real treasure.

  2. She sounds as lovely as her plants. I will have to look for some of them- I love having the story of the person behind the discovery.

  3. Anonymous11:29 AM

    Got a question--

    I've got one hyacinth that was planted by the original owners of my house at least 10 years ago. It comes up with perfect reliability every spring. (I utterly ignore it.) Do you think this would be of interest to a plant collector looking to propagate more reliable hyacinths? I'd happily give it to one if that's so. Or it is just lucky?

  4. Anonymous12:13 PM

    A book was writen - Life of Robert and Jelena de Belder - interesting and memorys reviling reading
    Jelena and Robert De Belder - Generous as Nature herself - by Diane Adriaenssen

  5. May I inquire how you pronounce her name? I want to know to make sure I'm saying Hamamelis 'Jelena' correctly. - Jared

  6. It's pronounced Ya-lay-na


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