Family: Ranunculaceae (ranunculus family)
Common Names: Hellebore, Lenten Rose
Origin: Southern and Central Europe
Hellebores are fast becoming one of the most popular plants for the shade garden. These plants are wonderful in a mixed shady bed with plants such as Hostas, Ferns, Tiarellas, and Heucheras. They can be very long-lived and once planted, prefer to be left undisturbed. Their flowers are cup-shaped, approximately two inches in diameter, usually nodding, and are composed of very noticible stamens surrounded by a single or sometimes double ring of petal-like sepals. Their colors range from white to greenish-white, pink, or purple. Sometimes the sepals are speckled with a darker shade or have a darker picotee margin. As the season progresses, the sepals fade to green and eventually to brown after the seeds mature.
Hellebores are called by the common name, "Lenten Rose", because their rose-shaped flowers appear during the Christian season of Lent, the 40 days preceeding Easter. They usually open in late January to mid February and are often the first perennial to bloom. Their arrival is a sure sign that spring is on its way even if snow is on the ground as in the photo above. This plant is valuable for providing color in late winter and very early spring when few other plants are flowering. Even if they never bloomed the plants would be admired for their foliage alone. The leaves are evergreen, deeply divided, palmately compound, leathery, with coarsely-serrate margins. They provide color in the winter and texture the rest of the year.
The fruit is a capsule with many small dark brown to black seeds. The seeds mature in late spring to early summer and may be allowed to self-sow, or may be collected to be grown under more controlled conditions. The seeds require a moist, warm period followed by cold temperatures to germinate, so are best sown as soon as they ripen.
Size: 12 - 24 inches tall and 18 - 24 inches wide.
Cultivation: Hellebores can tolerate many different soil types but prefer a neutral pH (around 7.0). Hellebores thrive in rich, moist soil ammended with organic matter. Since Hellebores seldom need dividing, it is important to provide them a good home at planting time.
Pruning: The previous season's leaves should be removed in late fall when new growth begins.
Light: Shade to Partial Shade
Moisture: They prefer moist, but well-drained soil. They hate waterlogged soil. So, clay soils must be well ammended with organic matter such as peat, compost, well-rotted leaves, or bark soil ammendment. Raised beds or under trees which naturally remove excess water from the soil are ideal locations.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 10
Propagation: Hellebores may be propagated by either division or seed. The best time to divide plants is in late summer to early fall. Not all Hellebore species can be divided successfully, but H. orientalis and the hybrids can be. However, it may take more than one season following division for the plant to recover and begin flowering again. While you can simply dig up a clump, and break it apart with a gardening fork or shovel, according to Graham Rice, the Hellebore expert, the best way is to wash off the soil before separating into smaller divisions with hand pruners. Rice describes in detail how to propagate Hellebores on his website.