There is nothing that captures my heart more than a plant with a long history behind it. The Lenten Rose or Hellebore is one of those plants.
This plant is actually not a rose at all but is part of the Runuculacea family of plants. Its recorded history dates back centuries when it was used in witchcraft and medicinally and later when it became known by the common name “Lenten Rose” because of its habit of blooming during the season of Lent. This helped make them a favorite in Victorian gardens over one hundred years ago. Another interesting bit is that historians think it was actually the poison of the Hellebore that killed Alexander the Great.
The Lenten Rose Helleborus orientalis, is a hardy perennial with evergreen leaves and long lasting blossoms that can begin to bloom in late January in the more temperate zones of 6 and 7 or about March in colder ones such of 3 to 5. The blooms literally last a couple of months, a rare thing in any garden plant to be sure. Another thing great this is that the Hellebore’s range of hardiness so many of us gardeners in the west can grow it. It is a poisonous plant which makes it a bonus because the deer are not going to graze on it. It enjoys bright shade like on the edge of a woodland but can also be grown in the garden on the east side of a house where it is protected from hot afternoon sun.
Once established it is drought tolerant and forms a very nice clump which can be divided. The only grooming it needs is to clip off last season’s leaves in early January so the blooms are given the whole stage and really shine. Also its best to clip the old leaves before the blooms begin to emerge so you don’t accidentally snip those off in the process. The old leaves sometimes get a bit of spotting from blight in areas with more rainfall and its best to remove and destroy these portions. You will find as you grow them that just like other plants, some of them will be more resistant than others too this blight. Even among my seedlings I can see differences in resistance. I will edit out those who are prone to it. Its a good idea to wear gloves if your skin is sensitive as it can cause some dermatitis.
These plants also produce a lot of seed though they are not weedy. The seed are a good size and black when ripe making them easy to collect.
The beauty of them producing seed like they do is that you can grow more plants for your garden or share them with friends. They are not an inexpensive plant at the nursery so its great way to save money too. The diversity of bloom color is one of the best reasons I think for growing out some of the seeds. The photo above is only a small portion of the diversity I’ve seen come from my two original plants. Its pretty amazing. The blooms also make good cut flowers but are often best displayed by floating them in a dish of water in the center of the table or even in the bird bath. If you want to cut them be sure you chose blooms that have been open a while and feel leathery so they last well after they are cut.
There is no need to get panicky about them wanting to self sow, which they will do but its not a huge problem. I have a bunch of seedlings coming up beneath my plants from last years seed because I didn’t get out there to remove the heads before they let loose their seed. And actually I haven’t done much weeding out of seedlings and only a few of them are maturing making a nice collecting of plants and they don’t cast their seed all over the garden either like some plants do.
These seedlings are easily taken care of with a little light cultivation as they don’t like to be transplanted when they are very young. If you want to start some plants from seed you can just scatter the seed in an area you want it to grow in and let nature take its course. Its really that easy!
Hellbores are easily divided just as any perennial and the rule of thumb is that this should be done by April or wait until fall. Be sure you dig deeply and stay out away from the edges of the leaves a bit so you get as much of the root as possible. What a great way to make more plants! Oh and a tip I learned as a plant propagator…wash the soil off the roots so you can more easily see where to divide them.
As far as feeding goes, Hellebores appreciate a bit of bone meal in the fall just like our bulbs do. They also enjoy a woodland type soil though being the tough plants they are will do fine in average garden soil with some added compost and good drainage.
So during this season of Lent take some time to check out this wonderful group of plants. They are blooming in nurseries in gardens and nurseries making it the perfect time to find that one for your garden.