Rediscovering the Lenten rose

Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist March 28, 2012

I can think of only two deficiencies to the evergreen perennial known as the Lenten rose. The flowers nod down to face the earth, useful perhaps for pollinating insects but not for six-foot gardeners with creaky backs. You have to crawl around and manipulate the blossom upward to savor it.

The effort is worth it. With only a passing resemblance to a real rose, the thick-petaled beauty is actually saucer shaped and blooms in various shades of lime green, rose pink and plum purple. You can temper the nodding effect by placing the perennial in a raised bed, on a hillside or in a tall container.

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

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.

Breeders’ bounty

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.

The fruits of this infusion are seen in an unheated greenhouse where Dick has obligingly made for Judith a dozen raised beds framed in wood and each containing six cubic yards of enriched soil. Here, the unnamed seedlings have been raised to blooming size and are used to create the Tylers’ seedling strains. It is easy to see how the Tylers could devote their careers to this single plant.

Judith raises a bloom to show the true flower, which forms a ruff around the center of the upturned cup. “They’re called nectaries,” she says, and points out that even they are highly decorative and variable. The nectaries form an ornamental button that is every bit as
eye-catching as the larger bloom. One dark variety has elongated spoon-shaped nectaries, worth becoming a nerd for.

Color and pattern

Some of the purples are so dark they have been marketed as black. They are novel and look mouthwatering in isolation, but they are not as conspicuous as some of the lovely lighter shades. The Tylers group their hybrids into greens, yellows, apricots, reds and more. The color rubrics are all approximations, and many of the blooms have wild markings on them. Some are flecked, others fully blotched.

Hybridus hellebores don’t lend themselves to cloning, hence the reliance on seedlings with their natural variability. The Tylers sell their plants as single or double flowering, by color strain. You can also acquire their choice hellebores more economically by buying seed. Ripe seed, which arrives in summer, must be sown immediately. Keep a seed flat moist but not flooded in a sheltered spot outdoors, and the seeds will germinate the following winter. The seedlings take two to three years to reach blooming size.

Similarly, established garden plants drop their own seed, which sprouts in rich, unmulched soil and can be transplanted to other spots.

Hellebores also grow happily in free-draining, frost-proof containers, making the hellebore experience available to patio and balcony gardeners. I couldn’t leave Pine Knot Farms without obtaining a beauty for the container named Pink Frost. This is a hybrid between the Christmas rose and the somewhat tender species named Helleborus lividus. The latter gives it its lovely purple stems, rose-pink flowers and ornamental leaf veining. After a year in which the winter was the warmest on record and a spring that unfolds three weeks early, in spite of Tuesday’s brush with frost, I’ve stopped fretting about the cold and expect my plants to do the same.

The joy of rediscovering the splendid hellebore is a way of coping with the weather nonsense.

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