I have been gardening nearly all my adult life and have had the pleasure of knowing and growing many lovely flowering plants and shrubs. But it was by sheer luck that I became acquainted with the hardy evergreen, Hellebores orientalis, more commonly referred to as the Lenten Rose. These unique flowering perennials not only sport durable evergreen foliage and are easy to grow and maintain, but the softly delicate flowers appear at a the most unlikely time of the year.
When we moved into our present home five years ago, it was in the middle of the hottest, driest August folks around here had seen in a very long time. Despite the heat, our first job was to tackle the small yard that encircled the house. This little elevated platform was a shamble of weeds and rocks. But as we cleared away the debris, we found a number of jewels hidden amidst the fray.
Among them were gems, like the Siberian and Louisiana Black irises, the Green Dragon arums, and a large patch of peonies that turned out to contain five different cultivars. Each new discovery was like unwrapping an unexpected Christmas present.
In one corner of this madness was a strange plant that I had never seen before. The solitary clump of vegetation consisted of many whorls of long, deeply serrated leaves with a stiff but leathery texture somewhat reminiscent of holly. The rather large clump was growing in a dark, damp corner beside the front deck where nothing else grew.
Without any flowers to help me with identification, it took some time to discover that this was a hellebore – a member of the Buttercup Family. And once I saw the pictures of the plant in flower, I set out to divide the solitary specimen and put it right up front where I could see it bloom.
In March of the following year, the two new divisions bloomed just in time for an early spring snow storm! I thought for sure that they’d take a hard hit with the icy snow and freezing temperatures. But, as soon as the snow started to melt these determined plants simply stood up straight again and continued to bloom as if nothing had happened!
When it comes to Helleborus, the colored part of the flowers are actually petals, but sepals, which protect the true flowers within. And depending on the cultivar, Lenten roses come with sepals in shades of green, white, pink, purple, and red, with an amazing array of variants including colored veining, dark-tinted edges, and double and semi-double sepals. No matter what color you choose, the sepals will persist on the plant well into the summer, but they will lose their color as the seeds in the center begin to ripen.
Lenten roses grow to heights of about 15” tall with an equal circumference. And while they can tolerate some direct sun, the do best in dappled sunlight, full shade, or late afternoon shade (if that’s all you’ve got to offer them).
All of the garden literature I’ve read says that Lenten roses prefer rich humusy soil, consistent moisture and fertilizing twice a year. However, I can emphatically say that once these perennials are well-established, they are super hardy, drought tolerant and generally care-free. In addition, deer and rabbits hate the stiff leathery leaves of hellebores and I have yet to have any problems with insects or disease, either.
The only routine care that Lenten roses need is the annual pruning of spent or weathered leaves in late winter or early spring just as the plant begins to send up new flowering stems. Simply cut back all of the existing foliage and the new shoots will replace the old. Otherwise, the only other upkeep this plant needs is the removal of spent flowers in early summer – and only if you don’t want the plants to self-sow. If you are trying to naturalize an area (open woodland gardens beg for a patch of lovely hellebores!) or just want lots of seedlings to give away, don’t even bother.
You can also divide mature plants every three to four years. If the divisions are kept on the large side, the new plants will grow very quickly and provide flowers the following spring. In my experience, self-sown seedlings are very finicky and often die if moved in their first year. It’s faster and more effective to collect and sow seeds directly where you want new plants to grow.
No matter what you call these lovely perennials, be it Christmas Rose, Lenten Rose, Hellebores, or Black Hellebores, you will not regret growing them in any semi-shady spot in your garden. They naturalize well, the bees love the early source of pollen, and you will delight in having the very first flowers of the season right at your doorstep….even in the snow!
Merry Christmas and Happy Gardening!
© 2015 Jill Henderson Feel free to share with a link back to the original article.
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.