How To Grow and Care for Lenten Roses and Other Hellebore Varieties
Lenten roses get their ecclesiastical nickname from their growing season. It begins in winter and extends into spring, surrounding the season of Lent. While the long-lived plants add color to the garden for several months in winter and spring, they're also appreciated for their attractive foliage. Each leaf consists of a long leafstalk ending in large, leathery leaflets grouped together like fingers on an outstretched hand. But, contrary to what their often interchanged names might have led you to believe, Lenten roses are actually a species of hellebore. And they're most assuredly not roses.
All hellebores form tight clumps of many growing points, but species differ in their manner of growth. Some have stems that rise from the ground, with leaves all along their length; stems produce flowers at their tip in their second year, then die to the ground as new stems emerge to replace them. In other species, leaves are not carried on tall stems but arise directly from growing points at ground level; separate (typically leafless) flower stems spring from the same points.
Flowers are usually cup or bell-shaped (those of Helleborus niger are saucer-shaped), sometimes facing outward but more often nodding gently downward. They consist of a ring of petal-like sepals ranging in color from white and green through pink and red to deep purple (rarely yellow). Flowers of all hellebores persist beyond the bloom periods they are often prescribed, gradually turning green. And the blossoms are attractive in arrangements. After you cut them, slice the bottom inch of the stems lengthwise or seal the ends by searing over a flame or immersing in boiling water for a few seconds. Then place in cold water. Or simply float flowers in a bowl of water.
Hellebore Plant Care and Pruning
Plant in small groups (three to five plants together), spacing plant groups about 18 to 24 inches apart in good, well-drained soil amended with plenty of organic matter. Hellebore plants prefer soil that is somewhat alkaline but will also grow well in neutral to slightly acidic conditions (Helleborus niger is an exception; it must have alkaline soil). Be sure not to plant too deep—the crown of the plant should not be buried. They pair well in a wooded garden with other shade-loving perennials, such as ferns, hostas, gingers, foamflowers, and toad lilies. They are not damaged by deer or rodents.
Every winter, just before the flowers appear, give them a haircut. Remove all leaves that began growing the previous winter and spring. Compost healthy-looking leaves and throw out spotted, brown, or yellow leaves with the trash. Do not compost diseased leaves, as they will spread their infected spores. Cutting off the leaves won't reduce the vigor of the plants. They'll quickly sprout new leaves.
Hellebore Light and Fertilizer
Hellebores can take partial to full shade but find their most ideal location in light shade with fertile, well-drained soil with an abundance of organic matter. If the soil is too acidic (pH 6.0 or lower), sprinkle a little lime over the soil surface once a year. It's also recommended to sprinkle slow-release fertilizer, such as Osmocote 14-14-14, once a year as well.
Don't disturb hellebores once planted; they resent moving and may take two or more years to re-establish. If well-sited, however, they may self-sow, and young seedlings can be transplanted in early spring. To propagate, divide established plants in fall or spring. Or transplant seedlings that sprout in spring.