Lenten Rose Plants

Hellebores That Bloom Early

Lenten rose (image) is a shade plant that blooms early. It's a hellebore.
Lenten rose is a shade-loving early bloomer. 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 Helleborus niger, the "Christmas rose." So-called "white hellebore" plants (or, better, "false hellebore") are wildflowers native to the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada and classified by taxonomists as Veratrum viride.

Botanists categorize Lenten rose plants as perennials belonging to the buttercup family. The leaves are evergreen in warm climates. Further north, Helleborus orientalis leaves may still remain green for much of the winter, but they tend to look ratty by the time spring arrives. Fortunately, by then, the new leaves are well on their way.

Characteristics of This Perennial

My Lenten rose flower begins purple, but then fades to a more subdued light mauve. These Hellebores do also come in other colors (red, yellow, green, blue, pink). When I say "flowers," I really mean "sepals"; the actual flower is not all that impressive, but it is surrounded by sepals that are quite colorful, especially when they initially appear -- and Lenten rose is among the first flowers that come out each year, so that color is most welcome. The sepals are also extremely long-lasting, first emerging in early spring and persisting right through the summer.

Lenten rose's foliage is a shiny, dark green. These perennials reach 18-24 inches in height.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements

Grow Lenten rose flowers in planting zones 4-9. Helleborus orientalis is indigenous 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 plant prefers a well-drained soil.

Outstanding Characteristics, and a Warning

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. They not only usher in spring but also bestow upon it their stamp of approval, nodding their flower heads down to the spring earth as if to say, "Job well done." I sometimes wish, however, that they would pay more attention to me and look me in the face, so that I would not have to contort my body in an effort to make eye contact with them.

Besides early blooming, two almost equally important traits are the persistence of Lenten rose's trademark sepals, plus the beauty and longevity of its leathery, evergreen (or virtually evergreen) leaves.

On the negative side, all parts of Lenten rose plants are toxic. In fact, I have heard of cases where especially susceptible people have developed a mild skin irritation after an extensive period of handling these poisonous plants without garden gloves.

Uses in Landscaping

Reputedly a deer-resistant plant, Lenten rose may be a logical choice in areas infested by deer pests. When they re-seed (as these hellebores are wont 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. As with hosta plants, their shade tolerance makes them perfect for woodland gardens. Even though the intensity of their color diminishes as summer approaches and is entirely faded by fall, I still value the persistence of Lenten rose's sepals: they are a constant in the garden for some six months.

Perhaps most importantly, use this perennial's prowess at blooming early in such a way as to take full advantage of it. 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 your property (if you have a large yard). 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 

As mentioned above, the new foliage emerges just in time in early spring to supplant the old leaves, which may be tattered by this time. For aesthetic purposes, trim off the old leaves when the "reinforcements" arrive. Amend the soil with compost to improve the vigor of your Lenten rose plants. Divide clumps in spring to propagate them.

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

In relatively mild climates, Helleborus niger may bloom in winter -- thus the common name, "Christmas rose." There is a legend of the Christmas rose that is very similar to that for poinsettia plants.

Helleborus 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 Eastertime in some locales (Pasque being the Old French name for "Easter").

Both bear "flower buds" that resemble rose buds, thus the "rose" part of the name.