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.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.