Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor
University of Vermont
This perennial often is just called “hellebore” from its genus name (Helleborus), and is not a rose at all. It gets this name from the fact the flowers somewhat resemble a small single rose, and it blooms in the north in early spring—the Lent religious season. There have been many improved selections introduced in recent years, and it was named the Perennial Plant of the Year for 2005 by the Perennial Plant Association.
There are about 15 species of hellebores, with four more commonly found, the most common being the Lenten Rose (orientalis) and the Christmas Rose (niger). The Christmas rose blooms much earlier in mild climates such as in Britain, hence its name. One of the legends about it concerns a country girl, Madelon, who visits the Christ child in Bethlehem. Seeing her sadness for not having a gift to bring him, an angel brings her outside and touches the ground. There arise blooms of the Christmas Rose that she can then present as a gift to the baby Jesus.
It is odd to have such a plant celebrate Christ’s birth, as this species and the other members of this genus are highly toxic. It is one of the four classic poisons, together with nightshade, hemlock, and aconite. In fact, the name hellebore comes from the Greek “elein” meaning to injure, and “bora” meaning food.
Use of hellebore dates back to 1400 BCE, when it was used as a purgative to “cleanse the mind of all perverse habits”. It is found in writings through the ages, from the ancient Greeks through the Middle Ages, when it was used by herbalists. It has been used for animal ailments, to bless animals and keep them from evil spirits, to repel flies, to “purge the veins of melancholy, and cheer the heart”, or even in one superstition to make oneself invisible if scattered in the air!
Hellebores are native to southern and central Europe, and from Slovenia to Macedonia. They are often found in mountains, and on stony clay soils. Although the Lenten rose is listed as hardy to zone 4 (-30 degrees F), and the Christmas rose to zone 3 (even colder), both are usually battered by or under the snow in these areas. Mine, in a cold zone 4, often start the spring in a sad state, with unattractive or few flowers, but rebound with nice leaves in the summer. Cutting back damaged spring foliage can result in new growth more quickly.
Most species are not as hardy, and most hybrids that one finds include these less hardy species as parents. These hellebores, often hybrids (x hybridus) with the Lenten rose prefer and grow best in mild climates, such as in Britain, our mid-Atlantic states, the Pacific Northwest, and even the upper Southern states. If you have a mild climate (USDA zones 5 to 6 or 0 to -20 degrees minimum), or a protected location, you may wish to try some of the newer hybrids. When buying from catalogs, look for hardiness zone designations.
Hellebores grow best in part shade, with moist but well-drained soils. They will, however, tolerate most soils as long as not waterlogged. In the north, if hardy, they can be grown in full sun if sufficient moisture. They need little fertilizer, just an application in spring of compost and perhaps a light sprinkling of a slow-release organic fertilizer (such as a 5-3-4 analysis).
Plants are slow to get established, but once they are growing they seldom need division, unlike many perennials. If you do want to divide, or need to transplant, September or October is best. Dig the whole plant, wash off soil, then divide with a sharp knife between growth buds. Leave at least 3 buds on each division.
When planting divisions, or even new plants in pots, keep the “crowns” (where stems join the roots) at soil level and no more than one inch deep. Prepare the soil well prior to planting, and deeply, as many have deep roots and they’ll likely be in the same spot for many years. Make sure not to mulch excessively (this can lead to rots) or cover with compost too deeply.
They grow well on hillsides and slopes. Since they are low (12 to 18 inches high), and flowers are at or below the leaves, they are better appreciated if placed in raised beds, along walks, or on slopes. Much breeding has focused on not only new and better flower colors, and larger flowers, but upward-facing flowers. To better appreciate the flowers you can cut them, and place in a vase with floral preservative.
Leaves are divided into leathery leaflets with coarsely cut, or spiny, margins. The nodding flowers, up to two inches across, are generally in shades of white, rose, green or purple. Some new hybrids have spotted flowers, others are quite double or bicolors or streaked. What we call the flowers are actually the sepals, the flower petals being inconspicuous. Flowers and leaves of some species, such as the Lenten and Christmas roses, are stemless– they arise directly from the roots. Other species may have stems.
Plants are generally purchased, already started. As with other members of the Ranunculaceae or Buttercup family, growing from seeds can be difficult. The Christmas rose may be difficult to establish, not tolerate climate and cultural extremes, and may grow well in one area and not one adjacent. The Lenten rose is much easier to grow if you are just trying these plants for the first time. Check with local perennial nurseries to learn which of the many selections might grow best in your area.
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