Hellebores gardening lenten rose

As time passes, groups of flowers come in and out of style or favor.  Hydrangeas were popular in the 50’s but nothing much changed about them until new varieties suddenly were available.  Now, they are one of the most planted shrubs.   Flowering cherry trees were always the same until new ones were available.  Then suddenly you would see more planted.  This is the same with hellebores.  They have been planted over the years but in the last 6 to 8 years, many new varieties have become available and they are a hot item. 

There are about 15 different species of hellebores and the most noted and easiest to find are the H. niger, H. orientalis, H. foetidus.  These plants also are known by different names, causing confusion to people when they go to a nursery to purchase them.  Christmas rose, (Helleborus ‘niger’), is not a rose at all, but a very early blooming form of hellebores.   It is said to bloom at Christmas, but I find it blooms closer to the middle of January in my garden. The blooms are most often white but can become pink as the flower ages.  H. orientalis is called Lenten rose and H. foetidus is called stinking hellebore.   

The most familiar hellebores today are the hybrids that use to be called Helleborus orientalis or Lenten rose.   These jewels bloom before the Lenten season, a Christian holiday that comes forty days before Easter.  There are few perennials that can rival this plant at this time of year with their jewel-colored flowers.  These plants are some of the most coveted plants for the winter garden and are becoming more and more popular each year.   

I was given my first hellebores by a cousin who had a lovely display outside a bay window.  She was thinning some out and gave me a number of babies that had seeded about.  These were hellebores orientalis that were known to produce seeds that would come up close by the mother plant since the plants were not sterile.  They were single flowers and the colors were muted and I was thrilled to have these wonderful flowers that would bloom when little else was showing signs of color.    

Now, the offspring that developed were kind of like humans, the “children” or seedlings did not always resemble their parents.  However, the helleborus x hybridus that you purchase today have a better chance of being similar to the parent if similar plants are planted together.  It has been determined if plants that are different colors are planted at least 25 feet apart, they will be more like the plants that you purchase and planted.    

Today, some of the ones that you can purchase are quite different than the ones I planted years ago.  Breeders have worked to develop new breeding lines with new standards.  Each generation of new hellebores see improvements.  One of my favorite new series are the wedding party series, with their double-flowered selections of rich colored blooms.  There are many new ones available that have larger and fuller flowers, with rounded and over lapping petals, and with clear colors.  Some of the new varieties are not only the sophisticated doubles but there are some that have elegantly spotted flowers.  The world of hellebores has changed for sure.    

Hellebores are easy to grow and are a wonderful winter-flowering perennial.  They like shade in the summer and some sun in the winter.  If they get too much hot summer sun, the leaves will burn.  And, if the shade is too dense, the plant will not put on as heavy a show of flowers as it would with high dapple shade.  They also like protection from strong winter winds.  The foliage is thick, evergreen, and forms a low clump of leaves that are palm-shaped and are ideal for a woodland garden.   

Because hellebores are usually bought in containers, it is important to remove the potting mix from around the roots and to loosen the roots before the container grown plants are put in the ground.  This will make it easier to keep the roots of the plant alive until the roots take hold and are well established.  They like some moisture when actively growing in winter and they prefer less moisture during their non-active growth state.  

 I have found that just as the new growth is visible, it is good to remove some of the older leaves by cutting them as close to the base with a sharp pair of clippers.  If you do this, the flowers will stand out a little more and the plant looks neater.  If the old leaves are not removed, the old leaves will just be pushed aside when the new growth emerges.   

Hellebores are typically long-lived plants and you do not need to divide them as other perennials require.  If you do wish to divide the plants, do so in September or October.  Leave at least three buds in each division.  This way the plant will have a speedy recovery.    

Winter does not have to be bleak or dreary.  A few bright spots planted with some radiant blooms makes walking in the garden much more enjoyable in the winter, adding color to your garden.  This will make you want to enjoy your garden during the winter months as I do.  What a joy these charming flowers bring. 

Betty Montgomery is a master gardener and author of “Hydrangeas: How To Grow, Cultivate & Enjoy,” and “A Four-Season Southern Garden.” She can be reached at bmontgomery40@gmail.com.