How To Grow and Care for Lenten Roses and Other Hellebore Varieties

With showy winter flowers in colors of red, pink, purple, white, yellow, and everything in-between, hellebores are among our most popular perennials for shade.

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.

A beautiful pink Helleborus, Christmas rose, plant with flowers.
Getty/sandra standbridge

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.

Hellebore Division

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.

Hellebore Types and Varieties

Helleborus Argutifolius (Helleborus Corsicus)

  • Corsican hellebore
  • Zones MS, LS; USDA 7-8
  • Blue-green, six to nine-inch leaves divided into three sharply toothed leaflets
  • Leafy stems carry clusters of two-inch pale green flowers from winter into spring
  • More sun tolerant than other hellebores.
  • Requires moderate watering
Helleborus Argutifolius Flowers
Getty/By Eve Livesey

Helleborus X Ballardiae

  • Corsican hellebore
  • Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8
  • This cross between Helleborus niger and Helleborus lividus features outward-facing blooms on deep red stems
  • Requires regular watering
Helleborus x Ballardiae in Forested Area
Getty/CurtisC Photoography

Helleborus X Ericsmithii

  • Corsican hellebore
  • Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8
  • Hybrid of complex parentage
  • Features dark green, pale-veined leaves and large sprays of pale pink or white flowers, each up to four inches across
  • Blooms face out, not down
  • Requires regular watering
Pale pink flowers of Hellebore 'Winter Moonbeam'
Getty/John Caley

Helleborus Foetidus

  • Bear's-Foot hellebore
  • Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-9
  • Blooms from winter to spring, bearing clusters of inch-wide light green flowers with purplish red edges
  • Plant parts are malodorous if crushed or bruised (they don't smell bad otherwise)
  • Self-sows freely where adapted
  • Requires moderate watering
Stinking hellebore, Helleborus foetidus on brick garden path

Helleborus X Hybridus

  • Bear's-Foot hellebore
  • Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9
  • These hybrid plants generally resemble principal parent Helleborus orientalis, but flower color range has been extended and superior parents selected for seed production
  • All take moderate to regular water
Close-up image of the spring flowering Hellebore x hybridus 'Tutu' also known as the Lenten Rose of Christmas Rose
Getty/Jacky Parker Photography

Helleborus Lividus

  • Majorcan hellebore
  • Zones MS, LS, CS; USDA 7-9
  • Leaves resemble those of Helleborus argutifolius but lack noticeable teeth and have purplish undersides and a network of pale veins above
  • Requires moderate watering
Helleborus Lividus closeup.

Helleborus Niger

  • Christmas rose
  • Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8
  • Blooms from December into spring
  • Lustrous dark green leaves are divided into seven to nine lobes with a few large teeth; they seem to rise directly from the soil
  • White, two-inch flowers appear singly or in groups of two or three on a stout stem about the same height as the foliage clump.
  • Blooms turn pinkish with age
  • All varieties need more shade than other hellebores
  • Plants of Helleborus orientalis are often mislabeled Christmas rose
  • Provide alkaline soil and regular water
Closeup of Helleborus Niger Flower

Helleborus Orientalis

  • Lenten rose
  • Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8
  • Much like Helleborus niger in growth but more tolerant of warm-winter climates
  • Basal leaves with five to 11 sharply toothed leaflets; branched flowering stems to a foot tall, with leaf-like bracts at branching points
  • Blooms in late winter and spring; flowers are 24 inches wide, in colors including white, pink, purplish, cream, and greenish, often spotted with deep purple
  • Easier to transplant than other hellebores
  • Hybridizes freely with many other species; many nursery plants may be hybrids
  • Requires regular watering
Close-up image of a spring flowering, dark pink Hellebore flower also known as the Lenten Rose or Christmas Rose
Getty/Jacky Parker Photography

Helleborus X Sternii

  • Lenten rose
  • Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8
  • Hybrid between Helleborus argutifolius and Helleborus lividus, with bluish green foliage netted with white or cream
  • Greenish, one to two-inch flowers suffused with pink bloom from winter to spring
  • Requires moderate watering
Helleborus x sternii a winter spring semi evergreen flowering plant with a yellow green springtime flower

Helleborus Viridis

  • Green hellebore
  • Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8
  • Graceful bright green leaves are divided into seven to 11 leaflets; leafy stems bear one to two-inch-wide flowers in pure green to yellowish green, sometimes with purple on the inside
  • Blooms from winter through late spring
  • Requires regular watering
Close-up of Green Hellebore, Bear's-foot (Helleborus viridis) Flowers
Was this page helpful?
Related Articles