Extension Educator, Horticulture
If ever there was a plant that needed a new name, it would be hellebore. No part of that name sounds like something you would want. Sounds more like a name for your cousin who still inhabits his parent's basement or a furry creature from the latest Alien movie. Hellebore's other more appealing name is Lenten Rose with the botanic name of Helleborus x hybridus. Actually there are some 15 species of hellebores with ornamental appeal. Sometimes listed as Helleborus orientalis most available hellebores are hybrids of different species. Whichever name they go by, once you discover hellebores you will wonder (in addition to long underwear and mulch) how you possibly lived without them.
Hellebore has been designated the perennial plant of the year for 2005 by the Perennial Plant Association. Each year members of the association select a plant they find to be suitable for a wide range of climates, low maintenance, easily propagated and shows multi-season interest.
Lenten Rose is all of these and much more. If you have a shady garden, Lenten Rose should be on your list of top ten plants, right up there with hostas and ferns.
Lenten Rose is one of the first plants to bloom. Flowers can last an amazing 2 months or more, perhaps as long as February through May. Even as the flowers fade the plant stays attractive as the interesting seedpods form. Each year plants will produce more and more flowers until a single plant might bear 50 blooms. The three to four inch flowers nod gracefully in the garden. Plants are best left in place for the clump to grow larger each year. Even without flowers the plants are attractive with their leathery umbrella leaves which are usually evergreen. Mature plants form nice clumps at 18-24 inches tall and 24-30 inches wide.
Another nice attribute of Lenten Rose is its tremendous variability in flower colors. The buttercup shaped flowers may be pure white to a dark plum, almost black. Other colors are pink, red, yellow and several have interesting spots inside the flowers. Some flowers are double or semi double and may even have lovely ruffled edges. You may find you discover some of your own colors, as Lenten rose will reseed in your garden. Luckily the reseeding is in the "move to another part of the garden" way not in a "Queen Anne 's lace - How can I get rid of this?" way.
Lenten rose does its best growth in shade to partial shade in moist, well-drained soil with lots of organic matter, so bring out the compost. They are especially lovely on slopes or in raised beds above paths where the flowers can be seen up close. Good drainage is a must. If poor drainage is a concern, your best bet would be to build up the garden area at least 8 inches or so.
One word of warning some people develop a mild skin irritation from prolonged exposure on bare skin. Gloves and a long sleeve shirt are best just in case. The nice part of this story is the same components that make Lenten Rose an irritant also make them unpalatable to deer.
Hellebores make good specimen plants or can be used in mass or as a ground cover. Some good companions for hellebores are spring wildflowers of trillium or spring beauties and spring bulbs. The leaves make a nice counterpoint to ferns, hostas and bleeding hearts. Lenten Rose is sure to become your favorite shady character.
Thanks to the Perennial Plant Association for information. To see a picture, go to http://www.perennialplant.org