Lenten Rose Plants

Hellebores That Bloom Early

Lenten rose (image) is a shade plant that blooms early. It's a hellebore.
David Beaulieu

Taxonomy and Botany of Lenten Rose Plants

Plant taxonomy classifies Lenten rose flowers as Helleborus orientalis. Other types of hellebores exist, as well, including H. niger, the "Christmas rose." "White hellebore" plants (or, better, "false hellebore") are wildflowers native to the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada and classified by scientists as Veratrum viride.

Botanists categorize Lenten rose plants as perennials belonging to the buttercup family.

 The leaves are evergreen in warm climates. Further north, H. orientalis leaves may still remain green for much of the winter, but they tend to look ratty by the time spring arrives. The good news is that, by then, the new leaves are well on their way.

Characteristics of This Perennial

The color of the Lenten rose flower is most vibrant when it first comes out in spring, after which time it will fade somewhat. For example, a type advertised as having purple flowers will come closest to living up to that billing in spring, after which it will fade to a light mauve.

These hellebores come in a variety of other colors (red, yellow, green, blue, lavender, pink), too. In addition to this range of colors, further variation occurs in the form of markings on the flowers, such as margins of a different color, showy freckling, or cool veining.

When we say "flowers" here, we are really talking about the sepals.

A "sepal" is similar to a petal but longer-lasting. The actual flower is not all that impressive, but it is surrounded by sepals that are quite colorful, especially when they first appear. And they appear early, because Lenten rose is among the first flowers that come out each year. The sepals first emerge in early spring and last right through the summer.

Some cultivars offer double flowers, an example being H. x ‘Windcliff Double Pink.' Lenten rose's foliage matures to a shiny, dark green (with little "teeth" along the edges) after starting out purplish in color. These perennials reach 18-24 inches in height, with a similar spread. Flowering initially occurs near ground level, below last year's leaves.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements

Grow Lenten rose flowers in planting zones 4-9. H. orientalis is native to Southern Europe.

At planting time, install Lenten rose plants in partial shade to full shade. Shade helps preserve the vibrant color of both the sepals and the foliage. This spring flower prefers an evenly moist, well-drained, fertile soil.

Outstanding Characteristics, Drawbacks

Lenten rose flowers are valued for their early-blooming quality, injecting color into the early spring landscape after the wintertime's long reign of browns, grays and whites. The flower heads nod down to the earth. It would be easier to appreciate their beauty if they did not nod, so that we would not have to contort our bodies in an effort to look up into the centers of the flowers.

Besides early blooming, two almost equally important traits are the long time that Lenten rose's sepals last, plus the beauty and longevity of its leathery, evergreen leaves.

All parts of Lenten rose plants, however, are toxic. In fact, cases exist where especially susceptible people have developed a mild skin irritation after an extensive period of handling these poisonous plants without garden gloves. Still, this drawback generally will not deter people from growing such an interesting plant. In fact, it may be one of the best plants of which the beginning gardener is typically unaware, and it is surely one of the best perennials for shade.

Uses in Landscaping

Said to be a deer-resistant plant, Lenten rose may be a logical choice in areas infested by deer pests. When they reseed (as these hellebores tend to do) and spread to fill in an area, their attractive foliage makes them gorgeous ground covers. In fact, Lenten rose will naturalize under the right conditions.

Alternatively, if you wish to keep your Lenten roses as single specimens, seedlings that have been around for a few years are well-established enough to be transplanted to another part of your garden. As with hosta plants, their shade tolerance makes them perfect for woodland gardens. Even though their color becomes less vibrant as summer approaches and is entirely faded by fall, one can still value the persistence of Lenten rose's sepals. They are a constant in the garden for some six months.

Perhaps most importantly, take full advantage of this perennial's early-blooming quality. This means locating it in a spot in your landscaping where it is easily accessible. Do not hide it somewhere where it will be easily forgotten after the long winter, such as in an isolated corner of a large property. Instead, install it in a location where it will be constantly on display as you go about your daily business in the landscape during the spring season.

Perhaps you have a planting bed near the back porch, a spot that you pass by numerous times during the course of the day? Assuming that this area is shady, it could be the ideal place for growing Lenten rose. The unusual and attractive foliage stays dark green long enough that it will not embarrass you in the summer. 

Tips on Plant Care 

Lenten rose is one of the easiest plants to grow. It requires little care. Watering the plant during dry periods in the spring and summer will probably be your most time-consuming task. The new foliage emerges just in time in early spring to take over for the old leaves, which may be tattered by this time. Trim off the old leaves when these "reinforcements" arrive.

Amend the soil with compost to improve the vigor of your Lenten rose plants, or fertilize with manure tea. You can divide the clumps in spring to gain additional plants. Few pests eat them. They are not only deer-proof but also rabbit-proof flowers.

Origin, Meaning of the Names, "Lenten Rose" and "Christmas Rose"

In fairly mild climates, H. niger may bloom in winter, which is why it bears the common name, "Christmas rose." There is a legend of the Christmas rose that is very similar to that for poinsettia plants.

H. orientalis, meanwhile, may bloom in early spring, around the time of the Christian season of Lent (thus the common name). Likewise, "Pasque flower" is so named because it blooms around Easter in some areas (Pasque being the Old French name for "Easter").

Both types of hellebores bear "flower buds" that resemble rose buds, thus the "rose" part of the name. But the plant is not a true rose (that is, it does not belong to the Rosa genus).