A Winter Wonder

By Julie Barnes

When it seems that winter will never end, just imagine the spectacle of a rose blooming. As stated by a 15th century poem: "A glorious rose that springs from a tender root. Its sweet fragrance fills the air chasing away darkness in the middle of a cold winter. At a time of year when flowers are rare, a gardener's spirits can surely be lifted by a "Christmas or Lenten Rose."

The "Christmas or "Lenten Rose" is not a true rose in any way whatsoever. Its flowers resemble single roses that have bracts of five petal-like sepals enclosing a cluster of stamens. These showy sepals do not shrivel or fade like true petals as they display lasting blooms of color. In mild climates, or higher hardiness zones "Christmas Rose" flaunts large white blossoms in December around Christmas. "Lenten Rose" flowers in late winter, or early spring closer to the Christian Season of Lent. These tough performers from the genus, Helleborus are members of the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) Family and are related to buttercup, delphinium, clematis, columbine, anemone, hepatica, and monkshood. The "Lenten Rose" (H. orientalis) is easier to grow offering a colorful variety of nodding flowers that contrast with the white upward facing blooms of "Christmas Rose" (H. niger). The nodding flowers of Lenten Rose actually shelter its pollen producing parts from frost damage.

Hellebore plants sold in garden centers are mainly "Lenten Rose" or H. orientalis hybrids (Helleborous x hybridis.) Cross-pollinating H.orientalis with similar hellebore species can be a slow, three year process, in order to, obtain the remarkable results of double flowers, assorted blossom colors, speckled petal patterns, varied petal shapes, nodding or upright facing flowers, as well as, different plant sizes. Hellebore buds reveal brilliant hued flowers that recede to green much later, differing from most plants, whose blooms start off green before turning color. Not too long ago, hellebore was found predominantly in a collector's garden. But, in the 1980's, breeders began to develop hellebore into a hardy plant that anyone could grow. It performs well in diverse conditions, has insect or disease resistance and provides multiple season interest. In addition, seedlings freely produced around the parent plant can easily be dug up and transplanted. However, they will not be the same as the parent in color or form.

The name Hellebourus comes from the Greek words hellein meaning to kill and bora denoting food which means that all hellebore plant parts are toxic. Handsome, glossy, evergreen leaves surrounding the long lasting blossoms remain attractive thru all the seasons. Hellebores are especially ideal for a woodland garden, growing best in partly shaded locations. When planted beneath deciduous trees, they will absorb the sunlight needed during their winter growing season until the trees leaf out. When planting one, its crown should just be covered with soil in the same way as a peony. Flower production will be inhibited when planted too deep, or in too much shade. Although, hellebores favor moist, well- drained soil, established plants may eventually develop drought tolerance. They should not be placed in wet areas where poor drainage can rot their roots. For maintenance, a little spring cleanup is all hellebores need, pruning out tattered leaves, or dead material when new growth appears.

Hellebores are amazing for gardeners who want to grow easy, shade loving plants. These early blooming wonders are adaptable, beautiful, and deer resistant. What more can a gardener ask for?