February can be a bleak time on the East Coast. Days are short and the sky hangs low on the horizon. But there’s a small-sized perennial whose early, colorful blooms never fail to lift my mood. It’s the lovely, cup-shaped flower called hellebore, commonly known as the Lenten Rose.
THE FOUR MAIN HELLEBORE SPECIES
The hellebore genus consists of around 20 species, but only four are typically available to the consumer. All are evergreen, deer-proof and frost-resistant. And depending on climate, they bloom anytime from mid-winter to early spring. Here’s a breakdown:
The largest is the Corsican hellebore (Helleborus argutifolius). Growing to about 4 feet tall, it features nodding, pale green flowers and clumping, holly-like foliage. Unlike most of the other varieties, it performs best in full sun.
The unfortunately-named Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) is slightly smaller. Typically growing to around 24 inches tall, it is known for its dramatic foliage. Its finely cut leaves are divided into serrated fingers arranged like a fan.
Don’t crush them, though, or they’ll emit an unpleasant odor. Helleborus foetidus prefers shade.
While most hellebores bloom in later winter or early spring, the aptly-named Christmas Rose (Helleborus niger) blooms in winter. Growing to between 12 and 15 inches tall, it produces large, flat flowers with bright yellow centers. The blooms lay close to the foliage and age from white to soft pink over time. Many say they bear an uncanny resemblance to fried eggs.
But of all the hellebore species, the Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis) lays claim to the showiest flowers. Its many hybrids produce spectacular blooms in all colors, shapes and sizes. Growing to just 12 to 15-inches tall, it forms clumps of evergreen foliage that can range as wide as 30 inches.
Lenten roses do best in morning shade with afternoon sun. They are the most common variety found at nurseries.
Indeed, there’s a lot to love about Lenten roses. During the winter, the plants’ tough evergreen leaves add structure to the garden. And come spring, some hybrids produce upwards of 50 flowers that persist for months. Here’s a tip – once you see the flowers start to emerge, cut off the winter foliage. The flowers shine on their own, and soon enough they’re surrounded by bright green spring foliage.
Incidentally, Lenten roses also make great cut flowers. You can add them to an arrangement or float them in a bowl. They’ll last for days.
Ready to give this species a try? Here are a some of the best hellebore varieties:
CONFETTI CAKE (Wedding Party Series)
Part of the Wedding Party Collection, Confetti Cake features large, upright-facing blooms on sturdy stems. Other colorful members of the Collection include Maid of Honor, Dark and Handsome and True Love.
Double hellebore ‘Confetti Cake’
If you like deep-hued flowers, the large, purplish-black double blooms of Onyx Odyssey are the ticket. Moreover, the flowers won’t fade over time, making this variety a long-lasting companion to other spring-blooming bulbs and perennials.
Part of the Winter Jewels Collection consisting of spectacular single and double varieties, Golden Lotus features fluffy, double lemon yellow petals often streaked or edged with burgundy. Pair it with Onyx Odyssey for a striking effect.
Helleborus Golden Lotus/Perennials.com
Shorter and more compact than the other hybrids, the deep pink buds of Ivory Prince open to single white blossoms touched with rose and chartreuse. The upward facing flowers make a soft statement in the garden.
Helleborus Ivory Prince/Walmart.com
Part of the Winter Thriller series, Red Racer features oversized velvety-crimson blooms over dark mahogany foliage. It is regarded as the truest red variety around.
Helleborus Red Racer
WHERE AND HOW TO PLANT
Hellebores are tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions. However, they perform best in partial shade. All species will expand exponentially each year, achieving a small, shrub-like shape over time.
As is the case with most plants, well-draining soil is key. Never plant in saturated soil. And make sure to bury the crown slightly beneath the surface. But don’t bury it too low, or it will hinder flower production.
In addition to good drainage, your hellebore will benefit from an annual application of manure or compost to boost flower production.
CARING FOR HELLEBORES
Maintaining your hellebores is easy and rarely requires more than removing dead leaves. I trim off last year’s foliage just as new shoots are appearing. As a result, the flowers bloom ahead of the leaves. Hellebores look especially attractive when combined with other spring blooming bulbs, like snowdrops and daffodils.
New shoots and blooms of a purple hellebore variety
HELLEBORES ARE TOXIC IF EATEN
Like many ornamental plants, hellebores can be moderately toxic if eaten in large quantities. On the other hand, their unpleasant taste tends to deter animals (including deer!) Although rarely fatal, large quantities can prove noxious. For more information about pets, the hellebore genus and false hellebores, check out wagwalking.com’s comprehensive information.