If you have a shady spot in your garden, I hope you are growing hellebores. You might know them by their common name: Lenten rose.
Easter lilies tend to get all of this spring holiday’s floral attention, but Lenten roses are worth a look. These shade-loving perennials are not roses at all but part of the buttercup family. They get their name from their blooming time of February through early May.
The flowers are generally a dusty purple or pale green, but can be found in other colors, such as pink, yellow and blue. The flowers are actually sepals, similar to petals but longer lasting. So, not only is this plant an early spring bloomer, the bloom will last for several weeks, although the color intensity may fade over time.
This plant is fairly low to the ground — the ones in my yard are not nearly as tall as the 18 to 24 inches on the plant tags, growing to be more in the 10- to 12-inch range. Despite its height, the evergreen foliage is broad and quite handsome — a nice contrast to the soft-hued blooms.
After blooming, the Lenten rose will self-seed and eventually naturalize in an area to create interesting ground cover. Growing them from seed can be a slow process and take several seasons to have new blooms, so be patient. If you want an earlier impact it would be best to set out plants in early fall or late spring.
When planting, keep in mind these hellebores like part shade and moist, but not wet, soil. As with all perennials, plant them in groups. I like odd numbers and try to never plant fewer than three when adding to my garden. This is a design trick that is easy on the eye and, for me, a fail-safe if one doesn’t make it through the season.
Once you find your spot, keep in mind hellebores don’t need to be set deep in the ground. Plant them with the crown just below the soil. This will give you a healthier plant. As it establishes a root system, be sure to keep the young plant watered.
They work well with other early spring bloomers, such as snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils. Mine are planted among daffodils and where hostas and other ground covers will grow. I first fell for hellebores because they grew under my neighbor’s bush. When they bloomed, I knew spring was not far away.
This year, I had friends send pictures of their Lenten roses budding in mid-January, that’s a few weeks earlier than mine. I had full flowers by late February and still do.
They require very little maintenance. I will let them be as the garden fills in around them. Sometime in mid-winter, when the leaves begin to age, I will trim the weathered ones back and wait for new growth.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that they are deer-resistant — always a bonus when planting at the little house on a big hill.
Can’t get enough of their pretty little blooms? Make a bouquet to brighten a spot inside. The blooms are also often floated in a bowl. To do this, cut the stems and just use the flower head in the water. For me, this is an elegant and unexpected twist to show off these early blooms.
If you live in or visit Charleston, you may have seen groupings of these hellebores blooming at the base of Loudon Heights and Bridge Road. At the other end of the South Side Bridge is a small public garden filled with blooms. Watch for traffic, but both are worth a slow drive-by to see Lenten roses in all their Easter glory.