Lenten RoseHelleborus orientalis
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Outdoor Growing zone
Partial Sun, Shade
If you enjoy spring, and look with eager anticipation at your garden, waiting for the first blooms, then the Lenten Rose is the plant for you. The first blooms can often push through the last of the winter snow, they are so eager to appear. Flowering in March and April, this is a larger plant, and easier to grow, than the earlier-blooming Christmas Rose. The flowers are abundant, and carried on stems at least 18 inches tall, that rise above a carpet of leathery, dark-green leaves. These are evergreen, but in colder areas they may be damaged in winter, and become unsightly. No problem, because fresh new ones begin to grow even before flowering is completely over. The blooms are incredibly long-lasting, for 8 to 10 weeks, turning from white to a beautiful light chartreuse green as they mature. Plants can be variable, and yours might have light pink or soft rosy-purple flowers – but they are always beautiful. For shady areas beneath trees this plant is unbeatable, or grow it near a doorway, to enjoy as you come and go.
The Lenten Rose is easy to grow and a durable, long-lived plant. Grow it in partial shade, with some morning sun, or in light full shade. Areas beneath trees or in the shade of a wall are ideal. Plant in moist but well-drained soil enriched with compost or rotted leaves. It will grow in most soils, except for very dry and very wet ones, and enjoys alkaline soil conditions. Add some lime to the soil when planting if your soil is neutral or acidic. Deer and rabbits won’t eat it, and pests or diseases are rare. Remove the flowering stems once the blooms have faded, and at the same time cut off old or damaged leaves to make way for new ones. No other care is needed.
Certainly not a rose, but a hellebore instead, the Lenten Rose is one of the oldest plants grown in gardens. The name tells us when it blooms – during Lent, the Christian period of 40 days ending the day before Easter begins. A name of fasting and abstinence, something that would make it happier would always have been welcome, and that is what the Lenten Rose did. Blooming during the earlier part of spring, with flowers that last for weeks and weeks, this is one of the most interesting and handsome perennial plants you can grow. It’s easy to grow, too, and easier to have blooms in colder zones than the related Christmas Rose, whose early blooms in January and February are often destroyed by snow and cold. Featuring leathery evergreen leaves and spikes of many flowers that are variable, and can be white, pink, or purple, with or without spots, depending on your particular plant, it is perfect planted beneath large deciduous shrubs or tall trees, enjoying the broken shade in summer and the winter sun found in those places.
The Lenten Rose is an evergreen perennial that grows into a mound of foliage up to 2 feet across, and about a foot tall. The leaves usually grow directly from the underground root, but may sometimes be on short stems. The leaves are large, and each one is divided into 7 or 9 individual leaflets. Of variable size, the leaflets are oval, with serrated edges. They are leathery, glossy and dark green, forming a good dense ground cover in a few seasons. Over winter short stems rise up, carrying clusters of flowers, growing to about 2 feet tall. Each stem carries several blooms, in clusters of 1 to 4 flowers. Flowers open from late February through to April, depending on your zone. The blooms are 2 to 3 inches across, bowl-shaped, made up of 5 partially-fused petals surrounding a cluster of yellow stamens. The outside of the buds is usually dark pink to purple, and when open flowers vary in color from plant to plant, sometimes being white, or pink, or darker purple-pinks. Often the inside of the flower is spotted with darker rose-pinks to purple dots, giving an especially attractive look. Flowers last for weeks and weeks, gradually darkening in color and becoming more spotted, and often also turning shades of chartreuse-green. The center of the flower develops a cluster of seed pods that add an interesting touch. You can expect to have interesting blooms for about 2 months before they fade and brown. Note that all plants of this plant are toxic, although it was once used medicinally.
The Lenten Rose is perfect for planting in shadier parts of your garden, in all kinds of settings. It is very useful as a ground cover under deciduous shrubs, or among other shade-loving plants. It fits into more formal settings, and also into natural gardens too. Plants can also be grown in pots, bringing them into a cool, bright porch during winter in colder zones, or when in bloom. This is a great way to enjoy the flowers close-up, and protect them from winter damage.
There is hardly a part of the country where you can’t grow the Lenten Rose. It is completely hardy in zone 4, but you may have winter damage to the foliage there – it is quickly replaced by new leaves in spring. Some damage may also be seen in zone 5, but as you head south, all the way into zone 9, it becomes stronger, more vigorous and blooms earlier in the year.
The best position for growing the Lenten Rose is in partial shade, with some morning sun and shade for the rest of the day. It also grows well beneath deciduous shrubs and trees, receiving sun from late fall into early spring, and shade through summer. The best soil is rich, moist, well-drained and alkaline, but established plants have good drought tolerance during the summer months. Add plenty of organic material when planting, and a handful of garden lime if your soil is acidic.
Annual mulch is a good idea in fall, but otherwise little care is needed. Deer and rabbits don’t eat it, and it doesn’t have any pests or diseases. Watch for slugs when the flower buds are still close to the ground. Trim off flower stems once they are no longer attractive, and remove any dead leaves – nothing else is needed.
The Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis, is native to Greece, Turkey and the Caucasus mountains. The name means ‘eastern’, because this species grows further east than the related Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger, which grows in Switzerland and nearby areas. It was very popular in the 19th century in Europe, and experienced a second revival of interest in the 1960s, leading to the wide range of flower colors that we see today in these plants.
Hellebores like the Lenten Rose are not as well-known as they should be, and they are plants that give a lot of pleasure at a time when very little is happening yet in your garden. We have a supply of sturdy, top-quality plants, but supplies are limited, and these plants are having a third revival in the 21st century. So our stock will sell out very soon – order your plants now, and enjoy them for years to come.