The Lenten rose, or hellebore, has gone from being a connoisseur’s plant to a widely used perennial valued for its low care, versatility and adaptability to shade.
The bloom resembles a wild rose, though the plant is unrelated to roses. Breeders have used several species to create a wide range of flower colors and markings; these include white, yellow, cherry, apricot, bluish purple and purple-black. Single and double forms are available.
The Lenten rose is most prized for flowering early in the year, as early as February, and the blooms last for weeks because the outer “petals” are durable structures called sepals. They darken as they age, often from cream to lime green to rose, while the true flowers morph into decorative seed pods. The dark green foliage remains ornamental through the season.
Each plant forms a clump that can grow to 24 inches high and 36 inches across. It works as a single perennial, a grouping or as a ground cover. The flowers nod and are easier to see if the plant is elevated, making the Lenten rose a good choice for setting behind a wall, on a hillside or in containers. It is resistant to deer browsing.
The Lenten rose needs some shade, especially in hot states, and will take quite deep shade if required. It will not tolerate wet soil. It’s hardy in Zones 5 to 9.
Lenten roses are usually sold in containers. Small plants reach mature size in two to three years. Roots that are congested — pot-bound — should be scored with a knife and teased apart before planting. The crown of the plant, where the new growth emerges, should not be set any lower than it is in the nursery container. Water it and give it a light mulch after planting, which is best done in early fall or early spring.
The leaves persist through the winter but should be removed by February to avoid hiding the new growth from the center. Dividing is not necessary. An application of a little balanced fertilizer in early spring will promote vigor, but avoid high-nitrogen feeds. In beds that are not heavily mulched, seedlings will emerge, which can be dug and planted elsewhere, though their eventual flowers may be a different color and less decorative.
Many are grouped by breeder series or marketing brands, each with a range of colors and patterns. Popular series (and their varieties) include Winter Jewels, Honeymoon, Wedding Party, Cascade, Gold Collection, Ice N’ Roses and Frostkiss.