How To Care For Lenten Rose: Growing Helleborus Orientalis Plants

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There are certain families of plants that everyone flocks to when populating their gardens, but a few families we often overlook can have some surprisingly beautiful options.

A perfect example of this is the Ranunculaceae (AKA buttercup) family, which contains a highly ornate species known as Helleborus orientalis (hel-eh-BORE-us, or-ee-en-TAY-liss).

Flowering Lenten Rose Plant (Helleborus Orientalis)Pin

Best known as the lenten rose or by the genus’s shrewd common name of hellebore, this incredible perennial plant from Greece and Turkey is a true showstopper when in bloom.

First described in 1789 by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the plant was popular in Germany during the mid-1800s as fresh specimens arrived from St. Petersburg Botanic Garden, and soon interest spread to Britain.

However, the plant fell out of interest in the 1920s and fell into relative obscurity until British horticulturist Helen Ballard introduced a range of new cultivars in the 1960s.

While still nowhere near as well-known as roses or chrysanthemums, the lenten rose puts most of the competition to shame.

Helleborus Orientalis Care

Size and Growth

You can expect this plant to take 2 to 3 years to reach maturity if started from seeds, and it can live as long as 10 years in the right conditions.

Lenten rose is acaulescent, which means that its stems sprout directly from the rhizome and form clumps.

The clump tends to be around 1.5′ to 2’ feet wide and tall, with some height variations depending on the cultivar.

Speaking of cultivars, this species has evergreen foliage that’s usually deep green, but some of the hybrids will feature silver veins.

Green leaves are palmate with 7 to 9 leaflets and serrated edges, with a glossy, leathery finish.

Despite their evergreen nature, these leaves are a little on the fragile side and can be damaged in harsh weather.

Flowering and Fragrance

As much as the evergreen leaves give color to your garden throughout the winter, the real attraction is in this plant’s striking blooms. These flowers come in two forms: single or double forms.

Chances are, you’ll unknowingly end up purchasing a hybrid, as Helleborus orientalis freely hybridizes with eight other Helleborous species which are in the same Helleborastrum section of the genus.

This can lead to a wide range of flower color and pattern options being marketed as the main species instead of Helleborus x hybridus (the proper name for these hybrid plants).

As a result, you may find your plant has single blooms, double blooms, solid colors, spotted patterns, and a range of colors from white to pink, green, maroon, or purple.

While some cultivars have upright flowers, the parent plant has downward-facing cup-shaped white flowers.

The nectary at the middle of the 1″ to 2” inch wide flowers give way to large seed pods produced in late spring once fertilized and often before the bloom even begins to fade.

Perhaps thanks to the evergreen nature of the plant, your lenten rose is among the first plants to bloom in the spring, often budding before winter has even ended, and the blooms will last well into spring.

Even better, a few weeks after the blooms finally fade, the foliage explodes – a reverse order to how many other plants behave.

Light and Temperature

While a wonderful and hardy plant overall, lenten rose is somewhat fragile in certain conditions and needs a bit of shelter from the elements.

It tolerates some morning sun, but make sure it has partial or light shade at the hottest parts of the day during summer.

You will also need to shelter it from strong winds.

When kept indoors in a container, you can place it in a spot that gets bright, indirect sunlight but should avoid placing the plant near sources of drafts such as Ac units or vents.

This hellebore can be grown outdoors in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9.

In the most northern reaches, you might need to cover the plant for the first few weeks of winter, and using a cold frame or row cover will help ensure the attractive foliage looks its best when the snows recede.

One important thing to keep in mind is that this plant reacts to cold, so you will need to expose it to temperatures of 40° to 45° degrees Fahrenheit for 4 to 6 weeks if you want it to bloom.

Watering and Feeding

This hellebore needs more water when it’s younger but can handle a missed watering here and there once established.

To find out if it needs water, stick your finger straight down into the soil.

For young plants, water, if it feels dry, about 1” inch down (approximately to your first knuckle), while established plants don’t need to be watered until the soil is dry about 2” inches down (the second knuckle).

A general rule of thumb is that you won’t need to water if there’s been at least 1” inch of rainfall predicted for the week unless it’s extremely hot out.

Fertilizing is a bit more complicated, but not by much.

Add some natural compost when planting, and use some organic mulch as winter sets in.

Not only will this help protect the plant’s roots, but it can encourage a bigger display when spring arrives.

Some growers also like to add a dose of balanced, general-purpose fertilizer or balanced fertilizer early in the spring to boost the foliage.

Soil and Transplanting

As with most plants, fertile, well-drained soil is essential.

Lenten rose hates standing water, and soggy soil is one of this plant’s biggest causes of disease. This plant will likely suffer from root rot when left sitting in wet soil.

It has a shallow root system and can tolerate rocky or sandy soils with some organic matter needed.

However, if you have heavier clay soils, you will need to add an aggregate, such as coarse sand or vermiculite, in addition to organic matter.

When growing in a container, the standard 2 to the 3-year rule applies.

In other words, you will need to replace the soil every 2 to 3 years and may need to graduate to a slightly larger container if the plant is showing signs of becoming root-bound.

Grooming and Maintenance

Maintenance is minor for this hellebore plant.

When you see flower buds beginning to appear in late winter, you can begin removing any dying or dead leaves.

You may also wish to deadhead the blooms when they start to brown at the tips to reduce the risk of self-seeding.

In addition. don’t forget to continue removing damaged leaves to give the plant a neat or tidy look.

How To Propagate Lenten Rose

Lenten rose is a self-seeder, so you can technically let it expand its range without assistance or harvest the seeds to grow more from scratch.

The division is also a popular method of controlling the plant’s size and propagating more without waiting so long for the first bloom cycle.

You can divide the mature plants in spring.

Hellebore Pests Or Diseases

This is one evergreen plant you won’t have much trouble with once established.

It becomes somewhat drought-resistant and cold-hardy while being generally unappealing to deer and rabbits.

In fact, the only real pest this plant tends to attract is aphids.

When exposed to excess moisture or soggy soil, lenten rose can become prone to a number of fungal diseases, such as black spots, downy mildew, leaf spot, and root rot.

However, there are two very nasty pathogens to watch out for Helleborus mosaic virus and Helleborus net necrosis virus, better known as “black death.”

These two infections cause black streaks and stunted growth as the plant slowly becomes necrotic.

It’s believed (but not yet confirmed) that aphids transmit pathogens responsibly, and an infected plant and its soil must be destroyed.

The plant naturalizes easily but is not considered invasive in the US.

Unfortunately, you may still wish to be careful where it grows, as the plant is considered toxic to both humans and pets.

Helleborus Orientalis Uses

Oddly enough, the toxic nature of this plant has been used traditionally as both a purgative medicine (in small quantities) and a poison.

In fact, an unidentified Helleborus species was credited with being used to poison the water supply of the city of Kirrha, allowing invaders to attack the city without resistance during the First Sacred War of 595 to 585 BCE.

More recently, the plant has become popular for much less sinister purposes, namely shade gardens.

Here, it really shines along borders and near windows where its wonderful blooms can be on full display.

Hellebore plants are also the true harbingers of spring, making them wonderful plants in the spring garden.

They also invite bees to the garden before most of your plants have bloomed, helping to ensure these pollinators are visiting when the rest of the garden bursts into bloom.

Even after the Hellebore flowers are gone, the lenten rose’s deep green foliage continues to provide excellent ground cover and complement your other plants.

Moreover, you can also make excellent cut flowers by snipping off the flower heads and then floating them in a shallow water bowl.

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