If you’re tired of looking out the window at a dormant winter landscape, have I got a plant for you! It’s Helleborus orientalis a.k.a. Lenten rose, or simply, hellebore.
While the rest of the garden sleeps and chill winds blow, this pugnacious evergreen perennial raises stalwart stems into the frosty air, often blooming as early as January, and continuing well into spring. It’s indigenous to the limestone-rich regions of Mediterranean Europe, particularly the Balkan Mountains.
There are currently 17 known species of hellebore. One, H. thibetanus, is native to China.
H. orientalis is a member of the Ranunculaceae family that includes buttercups. Its readily available hybrids are considered the easiest hellebores for home gardeners to cultivate.
Here’s what’s to come:
Hellebore Growing Guide
Read on to learn about this unique species, and how to grow it in your yard!
Hybrids of the wild Lenten rose are readily available for home gardeners in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4 through 9.
You’ll find them under the name Helleborus x hybridus, which we’ll talk about in a little bit.
Lenten roses are acaulescent, meaning each stem rises directly from the rhizomous root system, to form clumps that may reach over a foot in height and two feet in width.
Downward-facing cup-shaped flowers consist of petal-like sepals surrounding an intricately detailed inner flower called a “nectary.”
Sepal hues range from shades of green and yellow to pink and red. Variations such as contrasting spotting, veining, and “picotee” edging, as well as semi-double and double sepals, multiply the possibilities in an already extensive color palette.
Foliage consists of glossy dark green multi-lobed leaves with a serrated edge and leathery texture.
This species requires moist, loamy soil that is well-drained. It thrives in exposed locations in the winter, but when summer heat arrives, it is vulnerable. Plant in the partial to full shade of a deciduous tree (i.e. one that drops its leaves), so that it has summer sun protection.
I lost a hellebore once to intense summer heat. I had placed it near a spruce tree, thinking it would provide appropriate shade. No such luck.
It is important to note that like many ornamentals, Lenten rose is toxic to people and pets, so don’t eat it! Also, skin contact may cause irritation, so gardening gloves are a must.
H. x hybridus is self-sowing. But keep in mind that seeds generate variable characteristics, and may not replicate those of parent plants.
You may let seeds drop to form seedlings, and transplant seedlings to desired locations. Seeds that drop into the root crown of the parent plant should be relocated.
In addition, different colored self-sown seedlings may sprout near one another and give the appearance of one plant with two different color blossoms for added interest. Similarly, flower sepals may fade, for example, from green to pink, also giving a two-toned appearance.
You may harvest seeds in early summer. Some growers fasten small mesh bags around wilted flowers to catch the seeds as pods open. When they are black, sow them immediately.
And finally, you may divide your perennials in late summer. This is the only way to replicate parental traits with certainty.
H. x hybridus may be expected to live for approximately 10 years in the right conditions.
You may remove old foliage in late fall to make room for spring growth. Large leaves will obscure the view of new growth. You may also apply a layer of mulch at this time.
Other than that, no fertilizer is required. Simply maintain your loamy soil, amending it as needed with rich organic material for a fertile growing medium. If acidity is a problem, an application of lime is the remedy.
Not sure what type of soil you have? It’s time to test it.
Pests and Diseases
Hellebores are generally healthy, with few issues.
However, when stressed, they are vulnerable to pests and disease. Inadequate summer shade may cause signs of dehydration like brown leaves. Left unaddressed, this will lead to the eventual drying out of the roots and death of the plant.
Disruption caused by dividing them may also cause stress. Be sure that they have adequate moisture and organic matter for sustenance.
And finally, there are some pests that may attack hellebores, including aphids and black spot. Apply organic insecticidal soap and snip off any misshapen or discolored leaves. Remember to sanitize scissors or pruners afterward.
The most serious threat is “Black Death.” Its telltale signs are stunted growth and black streaks. Unfortunately there is no treatment, and the plant must be removed from the garden.
It is speculated that the culprit, the Helleborus net necrosis virus, is transmitted by aphids. Therefore, some professionals feel that treating for aphids may be a losing proposition.
I have not experienced these issues with my hellebores. In addition, while I always use the words “deer resistant” with caution, I will say that the visiting deer have not eaten my plants.
By Any Other Name
Now that you know all about this great ornamental perennial, let’s take a quick look at the hybrid Lenten roses commonly available in markets today.
We know that in the wild Lenten rose is H. orientalis. However, the ones we find for sale are usually H. x hybridus. Hmm… sounds like a word you’d use when you’re not sure what the Latin name is, doesn’t it?
Why is it so… generic?
Well, when we purchase a plant that is native to another country, we are often not purchasing a true species, but rather a hybrid cultivar that has been bred for optimal color and performance in the US.
Hellebores are fascinating because even in their native land, a single species may exhibit a variety of characteristics. When breeders cross these already variable natives with other true species or hybrids, the result is a dazzling array of options.
The true Lenten rose, as it grows in its native land, is H. orientalis. However, the Lenten rose for sale in nurseries is most likely H. x hybridus, a catch-all name created by horticulturists to encompass the great variety of characteristics cultivars exhibit when they are propagated by seed.
A variety of options are available, and you may purchase plants in bloom, plants not in bloom, bare-root seedlings, plugs of germinated seeds, and packets of ungerminated seeds.
So, what’s the most economical way to get good plants and get started? Let’s compare the options:
Mature Potted Plants
Pots in bloom are the most expensive. They’ve spent at least 3 years or so in a nursery, and you’re going to pay for all that attention. However, while they are expensive, this is a sure way to know exactly what the flowers and foliage will look like.
You may also find mature plants that aren’t blooming, in which case you take a gamble on color, but may get a break in price.
Potted seedlings are another option. Again, the less nursery time and the less color certainty, the better the price, in most cases.
Daylily nursery offers a set of 3 Containers of Mixed Lenten Rose in 4-Inch Pots. They are available on Amazon that may be great for getting started.
Bare-root seedlings have spent less time in the nursery and have barely achieved leaf characteristics. Again, these are cheaper, but with uncertainty as to bloom characteristics.
Germinated Seed Plugs
Plugs of germinated seeds are an even more reasonable investment for the budget-conscious because they have spent even less time in the nursery. However, there are no visible indications of the attributes your little sprouts will possess.
The most inexpensive way to dip a toe into the potentially addictive hobby of hellebore cultivation is to buy ungerminated seeds, and to embrace variations in their characteristics at maturity.
One important note: Only very fresh hellebore seeds will germinate, so read the seed package to be sure they are from the current year’s harvest.
Ready to Grow
You can’t go wrong in terms of timing when it comes time to plant Lenten rose, because most products are offered for sale only when it’s appropriate to plant them.
If you order from catalogs, delivery is generally timed to suit your zone. Mature pots, seedlings, and plugs may be put into the ground from March through August. Loose seeds may be sown at any time.
Hellebores also grow well in containers.
Here’s how to get started in the garden:
1. Find a Suitable Location
Hellebores require loamy soil that is moist but drains well. They also do best beneath deciduous trees that provide at least partial shade in summer months.
2. Prepare the Soil
Remove grass, weeds, and debris. Work the soil to a friable (crumbly) consistency to a depth of at least six inches. Amend the soil as needed to achieve a balanced sand/clay/humus mixture.
Mound the soil up for each plant to promote drainage and make the nodding flowers a little easier to see.
For a mature potted plant, take note of its depth in the potting medium. You want to plant just as deep in your mounded soil. The root crown needs to be a bit above grade to prevent rotting.
Remove the plant from its pot. If the roots are tightly bound, gently tease them apart. Brush off the potting medium and place your bare-root plant into the soil, spreading the roots out and nestling the plant in securely. Tamp the soil down, water, and tamp again.
In addition to potted plants, you may purchase plugs containing germinated seeds. Be sure to plant them even with the top of the soil in your mounds.
And finally, you may buy un-germinated seeds. These take the longest to flower, as they must undergo a period of chilling and warming to germinate.
Once your plants are in the ground, you’ll need to be patient. Blooming potted plants should bloom again the following winter/spring. Seedlings and seeds need to reach maturity, and won’t bloom for two to three years.
Oh, but it’s worth the wait!
Hellebores are long-lived, and each year they get bigger and produce more flowers. You can expect at least 10 productive years for your investment, given proper soil and moisture in a hospitable location.
Hooked on Hellebores
My first experience with hellebores was over 20 years ago, when I discovered them in a gardening journal.
They were still very much in the domain of the horticultural elite at that time, and imported native species were showcased as ornamental specimens in elaborate landscape designs.
Once I fell under the spell of manipulating Mother Nature and growing flowers in winter, I wanted to learn more and sought expert guidance. I found it in Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide by C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knott Tyler. It’s available on Amazon.
The authors and photographer Richard Tyler have years of experience harvesting wild species and creating cultivars for home gardeners, which are sold at Pine Knot Farms in Virginia.
Currently, this is the definitive work on the 17 named hellebore species and their various subspecies.
Hellebores are an inspiration.
Their nodding heads seem demure and fragile, but their existence in a frozen landscape is a daring affront to Nature herself.
It’s time to take your garden full circle with bold flowers that bloom in the winter-to-spring transition season. We can’t wait to hear about them! Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.
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Product photos via Daylily Nursery and Timber Press. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Nan Schiller
Nan Schiller is a writer with deep roots in the soil of southeastern Pennsylvania. Her background includes landscape and floral design, a BS in business from Villanova University, and a Certificate of Merit in floral design from Longwood Gardens. An advocate of organic gardening with native plants, she’s always got dirt under her nails and freckles on her nose. With wit and hopefully some wisdom, she shares what she’s learned and is always ready to dig into a new project!