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A Merry Gardener

Horticulture for daily living
Helleborus  Walhelivor  MO Botanic photo from website

Lenten Rose

This February, the ice and chill have me dreaming of spring. I have buried my desk beneath a foot high stack of seed catalogs and scribbled garden plans on sticky notes. I can officially say that plant fever has set in. In this unique month, when Valentine's Day coincides with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, I cannot think of a more apropos time to highlight one of the earliest harbingers of spring: Hellebore (Helleborus spp.), otherwise known as Lenten Rose.

Pendulous, cup shaped hellebore blooms emerge in late February to March, sporting a variety of colors. White, pink, red, green, yellow, and purple hues paint the sepals of hellebore flowers, featuring a showy calyx rather than petals. These charming blooms seem to embody the first stirrings of the earth from winter slumber.

Older hellebore cultivars typically have nodding blooms, coyly directing their faces to the ground. Modern hellebore enthusiasts and breeders have developed a great diversity in blooms through hybridization. Cultivars can now be found with upward and downward facings, solid and spotting patterns, as well as cupped and open shapes.

Breeders primarily propagate hellebore by seed. Seedlings require two or three seasons of growth before they bloom. Plants also have to be hand selected for flower color because they do not breed true to color without controlled pollination.

Gardeners can also propagate their favorite hellebore cultivars by dividing established plants in late summer or fall. Volunteer seedlings will have diverse coloring, but gardeners can increase the likelihood of obtaining seedlings similar to the parent plant by keeping cultivars with different flower colors isolated from one another.

Hellebores grow as evergreen perennials with a clump-forming habit, typically reaching twelve to fifteen inches tall. While native to sunny sites in Europe with alkaline soils, hellebores are outstanding performers in the woodland garden setting. These durable plants tolerate drought, shade, and neglect, but truly thrive in moist, well-drained soils rich in organic matter, and in sites with light to medium shade. Avoid wet sites, as hellebores are sensitive to poor drainage.

Gardeners have long cherished hellebore, although initially for its medicinal use. Hellebore contains toxic alkaloid compounds that historically were used as a purgative and a poison. Today, these toxins make hellebore an excellent choice for gardeners seeking a "deer resistant" option for their gardens. The roots, stems, and leaves are all toxic to humans.

Despite its long history of cultivation and coveted status as a favorite perennial among plant enthusiasts, hellebore remains widely unknown by the public. The bloom season of hellebore is so early that their show is finished before the average consumer visits a garden center in the spring, and big box retailers rarely stock hellebore.

Reputable online or mail-order nurseries such as Plant Delights Nursery or Bluestone Perennials are great sources for unique or rare garden plants like hellebore. (You can also check Dave's Garden Watchdog list to find other nurseries with solid reputations).

Rather than celebrating with roses out of season, consider buying yourself or your sweetie a Lenten Rose instead. This early-blooming perennial is sure to bring joy to the dreary end of winter today and for years to come.

Photo credit: Missouri Botanical Garden, pictured Helleborus 'Walhelivor'

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