Perennial Notes Excerpts
This article first appeared in the spring 1992 issue of Perennial Notes. It was written by Samuel B. Jones, Jr., Emeritus Professor of Botany, University of Georgia-Athens, and co-owner with his wife Carleen, of Piccadilly Farm, a nursery in Bishop, GA. He updated the article for us to reflect the new botanical name of Hellebores xhybridus.
Lenten Rose Hellebores xhybridus
There is a perennial that offers low maintenance and sumptuous winter and spring flowers: the Lenten Rose (Helleborus xhybridus), a member of the Buttercup or Ranunculaceae family. Lenten Rose can provide marvelously attractive flowers of dark maroon to pink and cream, white or even green from winter through early spring. In the Piedmont of Georgia, Lenten Rose may begin to bloom in late December and continue until April.
This Hellebore also has large, handsome, ground-covering leaves that are evergreen and coarse textured. At temperatures below 0 degrees F., unprotected leaves may become wind-burned and flowering may be delayed at temperatures below 10 degrees. Winter scorched leaves may be removed from clumps if they become unsightly. In fact, leaf removal at the time of flowering highlights the flowers and does not seem to hurt the plant. Lenten Rose is hardy northward through Zone 4 and southward through Zone 8.
Lenten Roses are easy to grow in any ordinary, well drained, humus-rich and fertile garden soil. They do best in light shade and are excellent under deciduous trees. Lenten Roses form the ideal ground cover under large deciduous shrubs or in the shade of north walls, but they thrive in dappled shade. Since they sow themselves, Lenten Roses are ideal for naturalizing in woodland settings. They are excellent for planting on a slope above a path where they can be viewed from below. Lenten Roses are drought tolerant and can survive without irrigation even in the driest of summers. Our plantings at Piccadilly Farm were not at all troubled by the recent Southeastern droughts. They are indestructibly hardy.
Lenten Rose is propagated commercially by seed. However, seed germination is slow at best, and four or more years are required to produce a plant of flowering size. Established clumps can be divided into single crowns at almost any time of year, but they recover slowly from division. Otherwise, established clumps can be left alone for 20 years or more. One can often find a good supply of self-sown seedlings nearby to share with gardening friends. Contrary to what is often written about the species, clumps can be moved from place to place in the garden at almost any time of year.
Prolonged contact of bare skin with the leaves of Lenten Rose can cause mild and occasional contact dermatitis. It usually disappears in a matter of a few hours. On the other hands, the alkaloids in the leaves causing the dermatitis render this Hellebore inedible to deer, herbivores that have become such a problem in many parts of the Piedmont.
The Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) is often confused with Lenten Rose. Christmas Rose is an alpine plant of the Swiss, German and Italian Alps and is also found in northern Yugoslavia. It is not recommended for the Piedmont. As Brian Mathews points out in his 1989 book entitled Hellebores, "It is not the easiest of the species to grow, and one seldom sees good plants of it in gardens. Even when it is doing well it never grows and seeds with such abandon as the Lenten Rose, H. hybridus". Regardless, it remains a popular subject for Christmas cards and calendars although it seldom flowers for the festive Christmas season.
Garden writers often rave over named cultivars of Lenten Rose. The fact is Lenten Rose does not come true from seed and must be propagated by division, a slow process at best. These named cultivars are seldom, if ever, available in the trade. Thus far, tissue culture has proved unsuccessful in propagating named clones. As Christopher Lloyd, however, has pointed out, the charm of H. hybridus is the array of color forms that appear among the seedlings. Another point of confusion is H. atrorubens, a true wild species from northern Yugoslavia having dark foliage and seldom available in the trade. Again as Brain Mathews notes, many gardeners have firmly attached this name incorrectly to a dark maroon flowered form of H. hybridus.
Lenten Rose is a first-rate perennial well worth cultivating.
We were given permission to use the accompanying photo from the editors at www.bestgardening.com, an interesting website for New Zealand gardeners.