Lenten roses are a well-kept garden secret


Lenten roses, probably known more by their scientific name of Hellebore, are curious perennials that fill a unique garden niche. They bloom in late winter to early spring, and few people visit garden centers early enough to see them in bloom. Consequently, few establishments sell many of them so they’re hard to find. Serious garden enthusiasts snap them up and are willing to pay top dollar for them.
Hellebore leaves are somewhat leathery and evergreen. Plants often appear as splashes of green among the dead leaves of the rest of the landscape. Nodding saucer-shaped flowers emerge from the foliage in generally odd color combinations. Common colors are white, green tinged with pink, yellow and purple. One type has flowers that are nearly black. Blooms can sometimes last for two months.
Flowering is better if plants receive nearly full sunlight in the blooming season. However, plants grown in sunny locations will struggle. The key is to plant Lenten roses under the partial shade of deciduous trees or large shrubs. That way they receive adequate sunlight during blooming and are protected from the hot sun the rest of the year. Hellebores should never be planted in areas of evergreen shade.
Hellebores are also tolerant of drought, though they grow best in moist well-drained soil. Their ability to withstand dryness stems from the fact that they go into summer dormancy and grow mostly in cool weather. Plants are not heavy fertilizer users and often are healthier if neglected. Therefore these unique perennials are easy to grow if planted in the right location. They also persist for many years.
Lenten roses reproduce prolifically from seed. Young seedlings can be transplanted in cool weather and babied throughout the summer in a shady location. By the second year they are usually vigorous enough to be returned to the garden and will usually bloom the following year.
Plants that flower at a time when few show any color are a valuable commodity for any landscape. Deer resistant plants are too. These perennials are deer resistant largely because every part of the plant is poisonous to eat. One need not be a biochemist to come to that conclusion. Lenten roses are members of the buttercup family, and buttercups are notorious for poisoning livestock.
I wouldn’t worry too much about poisoning pets and livestock though. Animals generally leave them alone. Even grazing animals won’t touch Lenten roses unless no other forage is available and they are extremely underfed. This is also true with other toxic plants like daffodils. Animals generally won’t eat them unless they are starving.
Believe it or not, several species of Lenten rose are still used medicinally by herbalists today for several ailments. Common uses are nausea, constipation, kidney infections and intestinal worms. Side-effects abound as do interactions to several antibiotics and stimulant laxatives, just to name a few medications. This is not an herbal medicine for amateurs. I recommend avoiding consuming it in any fashion. There are far safer remedies available for all of these maladies.

Two yearling Hellebores ready for spring transplanting

Two yearling Hellebores ready for spring transplanting

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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2 Responses to Lenten roses are a well-kept garden secret

  1. joanneeddy says:

    Having seen Lenten Rose in the garden of a friend, I was thrilled when she dug up and brought some to me. They ended up in the fairy garden my grandchildren created with me that lives under a crape myrtle. When Ella and Grey came for Easter, the green caps were up and blooming ready to provide shelter to the gnomes and fairies who come for visits. You are so right, about them and the redbud out front that the kids also helped plant. When I can’t wait for winter to end and I see these spring marvels, I know spring is beginning! I love them both.

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