Christmas cactus, Easter lily, Mayflower and autumn sage are just a few of the flowers and plants that are named after a season or are associated with a holiday. Another one, that is less common in this area, is the Lenten rose.
According to Wikipedia, the Helleborus orientalis’ common name comes from the fact that it blooms during the Lenten season. The “orientalis” denotes that the plants are native to Asia and the Balkans. Hellebores are members of the family Ranunculaceae and this old garden favorite has been heavily hybridized so that there are many modern cultivars in multiple colors.
The Lenten rose has been around as a garden plant for quite a while. Wikipedia indicates that German plantsmen began breeding H. orientalis “in the mid-19th century, enhanced by new material from the St. Petersburg Botanic Garden.” Interest peaked in the late 1900s, but by the early 20th century, the Lenten rose was no longer a popular garden plant. In the 1960s, Helen Ballard, a plant lover who married into a family of nurserymen, bred many new varieties that made the plant more desirable, and it has again become a mainstay for gardens.
The Lenten rose is an herbaceous or evergreen perennial flowering plant. It prefers shady spots, but does like some early morning or late afternoon sun. The plants prefer soil rich in humus. Steve Bender, aka “The Grumpy Gardener,” says his “grow at the edge of the woods in soil made from decades of decomposed oak leaves.” If you don’t have such a spot, you can create your own bed in a shaded area and amend the soil with compost. One article suggested planting the Lenten rose under deciduous trees so that the plant receives winter and early spring sun.
Lenten roses are more commonly grown further north in USDA Zones 5a to 8b (for comparison, Victoria is zone 9a). That equates to the areas from North Nebraska down to just south of Dallas.
So obviously gardeners in our area would not have to worry about winter temperatures. Southern Living magazine states that “coastal gardeners need to provide full shade, fertile soil and perfect drainage.” Lenten roses do not like heavy soils.
Lenten roses grow 18 to 24 inches tall and 24 to 30 inches wide and many are evergreen. A Denton County Master Gardener Association article notes that the leaves are “thick, glossy, and dark green with 7-9 leaflets.” Flowers appear as nodding clusters borne on thick stems above the foliage.
The plants are self-sowing so they will spread. In fact, several articles suggest that the plants, overtime, will form a groundcover. Plants may also be divided for transplanting. They need consistent water until they are well-established but are relatively drought resistant after that point.
The flowers have “five petal-like sepals surrounding a ring of small, cup-like nectaries which are the actual petals.” Some hybrids have blossoms that are 2 1/2 to 3 inches across. Colors range from speckles on a white background to greens, yellows, pinks, rose and almost black.
The Aggie Horticulture site notes that Lenten roses have few serious disease or insect problems. Grey mold, a fungal disease, can be a problem in humid conditions. Helleborus black spot may also occur. In both instances, it is recommended that the infected leaves be removed and destroyed. Maintaining good air circulation will also help.
A word of warning
Multiple sources note that all parts of the helleborus plants are toxic. The plants produce poisonous alkaloids that can bother gardeners with sensitive skin who handle the plants. Additionally, ingesting any part of the plant can lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and, in extreme cases, death.
So, wear gloves when planting or working with your Lenten roses. However, the alkaloids that cause problems in humans do make these plants deer- and rabbit-resistant.
I called several local nurseries and none of them had Lenten roses in stock. However, if you are the adventurous type, multiple online nursery sites offer lenten roses for sale. The nurseries are up north and the Lenten roses for sale are shipped pretty early in the season. Given our climate, planting in early spring or fall would give the plants a better chance of survival. And they are a bit pricey because the plants may take up to three years to bloom.
Taking a chance
I’m a sucker for trying new things. The four plants I ordered should be here in early April. The variety of colors and flower forms is pretty amazing and some of the apparently more desirable types were sold out. Gotta try them.