Helleborus x hybridus (Lenten rose)
2005 Perennial Plant of the Year
Light to moderate shade.
Native to Eastern Europe and Asia these striking plants never fail to lend an air of the exotic to any garden. The two most commonly seen species are known as Christmas Rose (H. niger) and Lenten Rose (H. orientalis), due to the time of year in which they flower and the single rose-like appearance of their blooms. However, Hellebores are not members of the family Roseaceae and can be poisonous if ingested (like most Ranunculaceae). However this trait does have the advantage of making them quite resistant, if not immune, to deer and other garden pests.
Hellebores are happiest in an area shaded by deciduous trees, with full sun when they flower, and protection from summer heat during their dormant period. They grow best in rich, but well-drained soil, with their crowns planted just at the soil line. Once established they are more likely to succumb to over-watering than drought, almost like Sedum for the shade. Fertilize during the cooler months of their growing season.
Their foliage is generally tough, leathery, dark green to bluish green with some cultivars having a silver/pewter cast to them. As well, there are several variegated selections available but they do tend to be a bit trickier to keep happy. The plants form nice showy clumps as they become established. Due to their evergreen tendencies and early blooming it is best to wait until after flowering to 'tidy up' any winter scruffiness. If planting or moving bare root, better success will be experienced in the early autumn while plugs or containerized plants can be transplanted at almost any time.
The flowers are of course what draws most people to these plants. The five (singles) showy sepals are quite tough and frost resistant - an adaptation to their early blooming, in addition they stay on the plant for an extended period of time providing a show long after pollination has taken place. The flowers are sometimes held protected amongst the foliage but hybridization is producing more adventurous and visible blooms in an extended range of colors and forms. Helleborus x hybridus is the generally accepted name for the more complicated of the breeding results, but they are still commonly known as Lenten Rose and are primarily H. orientalis. They even make spectacular cut flowers - best displayed by floating the blooms in a shallow bowl - the more the better!
Helleborus may have been used as protection against witches, madness and evil spirits, as well as for many medicinal purposes, but -- CAUTION: Leaves, stems and roots are poisonous, and may cause skin irritation.