(Helleborus orientalis and hybrids)
Lenten Roses are a welcome sight after a long, lifeless winter. Hardy between USDA zones 4 – 8, they are among the earliest flowers to bloom., emerging from clumps of attractive, evergreen foliage about two feet high and 15 inches across.
The colorful sepals come in shades of green-white, through mauve pink and plum to a deep wine red. Some newer hybrids add a pale yellow to the mix. (The inconspicuous petals act as nectaries, luring bees with their sweet nectar.) Blooms come in single or double forms. Recently, breeders have developed cultivars with an open, anemone-type flower.
Originally native to Eurasia, all Hellebores are dangerously poisonous. From their roots, ancient cultures created medicines used to treat paralysis, gout, and especially insanity. It was frequently used as a purgative. Historians believe an overdose of Hellebore may have killed Alexander the Great. As some people are sensitive to the sap, it’s a good idea to wear gloves when tending your plants.
Lenten Roses are relatively easy to grow, provided their needs are met. It’s particularly important to plant them in the right location. Pick a spot with light to medium shade and regular watering. They aren’t particular about pH, but soggy soil will kill them. Improve the soil with two to three inches of organic matter, such as compost or decomposed leaves. Then set your transplants to that there is an inch of soil over the root/stem union. Finally, cover the soil with several inches of organic mulch.
The plants grow an extensive root system. While deep roots help in times of drought, twice a week watering is recommended. Unlike many perennials, Hellebores do not need dividing, preferring to remain in place for years at a time.
Commercial growers recommend removing all the previous years’ foliage before new growth emerges in spring, to avoid transmitting fungal diseases. This is less of an issue in Colorado’s dry weather. If you see black spot on the leaves, pick them off and dispose of them in the trash rather than the compost bin.
Obtain new plants from seeds or root divisions. Note that the offspring of hybrid seedlings will not necessarily resemble their parents.
Since they prefer damp soil, it makes sense to plant Lenten Roses in the front of a shady border, perhaps next to a lawn which receives regular irrigation. They do well under deciduous trees or between shrubs. Companion plants might include Coral Bells (Heuchera), hostas, and early spring bulbs.