The second flaw is that the Lenten rose is not particularly fragrant, but then you can’t have everything. This perennial comes close to perfection. Gardeners tend to call it by its other name, hellebore.
The benefits of hellebores
Its first attribute is that it bridges winter and spring in a way that no other perennial, bulb or tree, can. In February, if it is mild, you can see the new growth pushing up from the crown. Within a week or two, the blooms are evident, fresh and bright but impervious to frost.
The plant bulks out over about a month, forming mature clumps that are about 18 inches tall and 12 inches across. A happy plant can have 40 blooms, each two inches wide, and the blossoms last until May in a faded state. (Not true petals but bracts akin to a dogwood’s “flowers,” hence their longevity.) Rabbits and deer seem to leave hellebores alone, as do slugs, and they don’t need spraying. They don’t even need dividing, like other perennials, to stay vigorous and blooming.
They like a little bit of shade, though too much will diminish flowering. Once established, hellebores will take dry conditions even if they prefer moist, rich soil. The one thing they won’t abide is wet clay.
They are so long-lived and trouble-free that you may not go looking for anything novel in a hellebore, which would be a mistake, as I discovered when I went to see Dick and Judith Tyler, who have created an amazing hellebore mecca in a woodland garden in Clarksville, Va. In their rural spread just half a mile from the North Carolina border, they have hybridized and raised fabulous varieties of hellebore.
The plain old Lenten rose is prone to a lot of natural variability, but when I saw how the breeder can extract so much more, I found myself rethinking its garden value and regretting my neglect of this jewel.
This was the experience for the Tylers, who ran a large, general nursery from the property and included hellebores in their fare. But it wasn’t until they went to England in the early 1990s and saw what top hybridizers were doing that they changed course and, in time, became one of the few specialty hellebore nurseries in the United States. The enterprise is called Pine Knot Farms.
“When we saw what they had over there,” says Judith, “we threw everything away and started over again. Since then we have been to England and Europe well over 20 times to bring back stock.”
With several of the 18 species of hellebore in the mix, botanists have reclassified the Lenten rose from Helleborus orientalis to H. x hybridus.