Hellebore is popular for its rose like sepals that emerge in early spring. Flowering usually coincides with the Christian festival of Lent. This has led to the plant also being known as the Lenten Rose.
A pleasingly hardy plant, the foliage of the hellebore is evergreen in most regions. The sepals, which protect the true flower can last from February until May, providing you with some early season color and interest.
The plant’s early flowering habit means that it is a draw for hungry bees looking for nectar filled flowers. Lenten rose’s downward facing flowers not only protect the pollen from the rain but also provide shelter to feeding bees.
Also known as the Christmas or Lenten Rose, this popular plant is a great way to add early season color and interest to a garden.
Like the delphinium and clematis the hellebore is a member of the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family.
Once established the hellebore is a pleasingly undemanding addition to the garden. The plants happily grow in beds, borders, planters and containers. Here is everything you need to know about adding hellebore to your garden.
In animals, symptoms of hellebore poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, colic, excessive thirst and drooling. In extreme cases it can affect breathing as well as causing weakness, paralysis, seizures and low blood pressure.
Most pets are unlikely to consume a lethal amount as the plant has a bitter taste. Some cultivars can also smell unpleasant.
Consult a vet if even a small part of the plant is consumed. They are best placed to advise you how to rinse out your pet’s mouth and ease any discomfort.
Hellebore can be grown from seed but it is a slow process. It can take up to 4 years before the plants flower. If you want flowers quickly you can purchase young hellebore plants, from garden stores as well as specialist nurseries.
One of the most reliable cultivars is Ivory Prince. This attractive plant produces ivory colored flowers on blue-green foliage. A compact plant it is ideal for containers. Another reliable option is . Green Hellebore This plant produces chalice like green flowers on top of dark foliage.
While Corsican hellebore may not be the most dramatic cultivar, it does reliably produce copious amounts of lush foliage. On top of this foliage sit pale, apple green flowers. Similarly Picotee Lady produces green-white flowers marked with pink veins. The edge of each petal is lined dark red adding definition to the flower.
For something a little more dramatic try Double Ladies. This plant produces eye-catching double petal flowers in shades of purple, red, pink, white and yellow.
The flowers of Penny’s Pink sit on attractive marbled foliage. Fragrant Hellebore adds aromatic as well as visual interest. These plant produce lime green or yellow flowers with a sweet fragrance.
As well as coming in a range of different colors and patterns, some flowers are also scented.
With so many varieties on offer, take the time to look around and a cultivar that appeals to you and will work well in your garden.
Where to Plant
Hellebore is evergreen in USDA Zones 6-9. The plant is also hardy in USDA Zones 4 and 5, where it grows as a semi-evergreen.
Hellebore suits a range of growing conditions. Hybrid cultivars do best in partial shade positions. This makes the plant a great choice if you want to provide ground cover to a shady area. Planting somewhere with a little shade is particularly important as temperatures rise. Lenten roses prefer the cool temperatures of winter to the warmth of summer.
Lenten rose likes most soil types but does best in rich moist and well draining soil. A loamy soil is also ideal. Avoid planting in waterlogged or dry soils. If your soil is naturally dry you will need to water the plants regularly. Lenten rose plants struggle in drought conditions.
Waterlogged or heavy soil can be improved by working in well rotted compost or horticultural grit before planting.
Planting in a raised or elevated position helps you to better enjoy the plants downward facing flowers.
These plants prefer a slightly alkaline soil profile but they can happily grow alongside acid loving plants. If you are unsure of the makeup of your soil you can use a soil testing kit. This helps you to better understand your garden, enabling you to create the ideal conditions for plants to thrive in.
Many growers like to plant their Lenten roses on hillsides or in raised planters. This helps you to better enjoy the plant’s downward facing flowers.
How to Plant
Now that you have selected the ideal place to plant your hellebore it is time to start planting.
You can plant the Lenten rose at any time of year but most people plant in late winter or early spring. This is when most varieties are on sale.
Working the soil over before planting helps to loosen it up and improve drainage. It also gives you an opportunity to work in organic matter such as compost.
Dig a hole about 12 inches wide and deep. Add three handfuls of fish, blood and bone fertilizer to the soil and work in. Alternatively bone meal works just as well.
Remove the plant from its pot. Gently shake the soil from the roots and carefully loosen the roots. Position the plant in the hole. The plant should be at roughly the same level in the ground as it was in the pot.
When you are happy with the position of the plant, backfill the hole, firming the soil down as you do so. Water well if the ground is dry.
If you are planting more than one lenten rose, space them out well. The plants have a spread of between 1 ft and 3 ft depending on the variety.
Planting in Containers
Hellebore happily grows in pots and planters.
Despite being small the plants like to send their roots deep into the soil. Initially plant in a container 16 inches deep. Repot your hellebore every two years, increasing the depth of the pot by at least 2 inches each time.
Continue gradually increasing the size until the pot is 2 ft deep. The vast majority of hellebore plants are perfectly happy in a container this deep and you won’t need to increase the size of the pot any further.
As well as being deep your chosen pot should also be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom. Before you fill the pot with soil add a layer of small stones or horticultural grit. This helps to improve drainage.
Fill with fresh potting soil. Plant as you would in the ground.
Remember plants growing in pots require more frequent watering. Planting in self watering pots allows you to cut down on the amount of time you need to spend watering your flowers.
How to Care for a Hellebore
Once planted the Lenten rose is pleasingly pleasingly low maintenance.
Regularly weed around the plants. This helps to keep plants healthy and hydrated. There are a range of tools to help you easily keep the soil weed free.
In the fall, clear the soil of any debris and tidy up the plants. This helps to keep the plants healthy and the garden looking neat.
Water well during the spring and fall, when the plants are actively growing. Soak the soil with each watering. Don’t allow the soil to dry out.
During the summer months you can ease watering. These plants go dormant in the summer heat so won’t require as much water.
Keeping the area around your plants clear and weed free helps to keep the plants healthy. As well as reducing the chances of disease striking, regularly tidying up the soil takes away many of the hiding places favored by slugs and snails.
While the plants don’t require fertilizing, it does help them to flourish. A twice yearly organic feed helps to boost their growth habit. Sprinkle a handful of fish, blood and bone fertilizer around the plants in March and September and gently work it into the soil. This gives the plants all the nutrients they require.
Alternatively apply manure or compost once a year. This helps to promote healthy growth.
A mushroom compost, which contains some lime can also help to give the plants a nutritional boost. Apply this in late summer or early fall as new flower buds emerge.
When to Prune
In milder climates, where you won’t experience a harsh frost, you can prune the leathery foliage in late winter. In cooler climates allow the foliage to remain in place during the winter. Prune the plants in early spring, just before or as the new growth emerges.
New growth emerges from the center of the plant from the ground in the form of little stalks. The old foliage, which surrounds the new growth, may appear old and damaged, especially after the winter weather. If you are pruning away the old foliage as the new growth emerges be careful not to damage any new shoots.
Cut away old foliage as close to the base as possible. If the old foliage is healthy and still looks okay you can allow it to remain on the plant until the new growth is larger and more leafier.
As the new growth emerges cut away the old foliage to prevent the two from becoming entangled. This also helps to remove some of the potential hiding places for slugs and snails as well as improving air circulation, keeping your plant healthy.
Always clean your tools after using them. As well as helping to keep them in good condition, cleanliness helps to prevent disease from spreading around your garden.
Companion planting is the process of growing mutually beneficial plants alongside each other.
Lenten rose is also suitable for planting alongside a range of woodland or forest plants. These all share similar growing preferences.
Suitable companion plants include:
- Christmas Box
- Christmas Fern
- Hart’s Tongue Fern
- Wild Ginger
Pests, Diseases and How to Deal With Them
Hellebore is prone to fungal diseases such as black spot, leaf spot and downy mildew. To prevent disease remove dead or dying foliage in November or December. This helps the air to circulate around the base of the plant, keeping plants healthy. Properly spacing your plants when planting also helps the air to circulate. Early in the growing season preventative fungicides can also be used.
Hellebore black death can target older plants, turning foliage and stems black. This disease is caused by the HeNNV virus. Initially causing stunted or deformed growth, the disease is slow to progress. The plants foliage may also develop black legions or streaks.
Hellebore black death is most common in spring and early summer during warm, damp periods. Eventually the disease causes the death of the plant. Dig up and burn infected plants.
Slugs and snails can target hellebore plants. The masses of foliage provide plenty of hiding places for the pests. Protect young seedlings by keeping them in containers until they are at least a year old.
Aphids can also target plants. Check the underside of foliage for the plants and remove them with a blast from a hosepipe or an application of insecticidal soap.
Failure to Flower
Hellebore may fail to flower for a number of reasons. If you are growing in a container the failure to flower could be caused by the plant being either pot bound or too large for its container.
If you purchased your hellebore in the summer and it was in flower, this probably means that the plant was forced to flower. Plants that have been forced to flower are unlikely to flower again in the spring and may not flower the following summer. Be patient. It can take a couple of years for a forced plant to return to its natural rhythm.
If your plant doesn’t flower immediately, be patient. The lenten rose likes to be fully settled in a position before it begins to flower.
Finally, if you have recently transplanted your hellebore it may fail to flower while it settles into its new position. The plants like to be fully established before they flower.
Hellebore flowers may change color from white or pink to green. This is a perfectly natural occurrence and happens as the plants age.
How to Propagate
Hellebore can be propagated from seed but it is a slow process. It can take up to 4 years for plants grown from seed to set flowers.
Spent flowers give way to seed pods. These can be harvested when they swell up and change in color from pale green to brown. This usually happens in late spring or early summer.
The best time to harvest is just as the seeds pods begin to split. This means that they are ripe. Cut the pods away from the plant.
Carefully open the pods and select the ripe seeds. Each pod usually has between 7 and 9 seeds in it. Ripe seeds are shiny and black.
Sow ripe seeds as soon after harvesting as possible. Hellebore seeds do not store well and quickly lose their viability. If you do need to store the seeds for a few days, place them in a paper envelope in a cool, dry place.
Sowing seeds in the fall allows them to naturally experience a chilling period. Exposure to cool temperatures is vital for germination. This chill period should last for about 60 days.
Sow seeds in containers or trays filled with soil that is rich in organic matter. Try to space the seeds out as thinly as possible. Cover with a thin layer of potting soil.
Keep the soil evenly moist during the summer. Don’t allow it to dry out.
Be patient. As we have already noted the seeds require a period of cold weather before the germinate. This means that germination may not happen until the winter even if you sow early in summer.
Following germination, transplant into individual pots when the seedlings have two sets of leaves.
Don’t place seedlings out until the last frost has passed and they have been hardened off.
Hellebore seeds, particularly those taken from hybrid plants, rarely grow true to their parent plant. If you want true copies try division.
Some hellebore varieties are acaulescent or stemless. Others are caulescent or stemmed. Stemless varieties produce leaves from basal growth. Stemmed varieties produce foliage from existing stems. Stemless varieties can be divided. Be warned, hellebore plants can be fussy about being disturbed so this is only best done when necessary.
Divide plants in late winter, before new growth emerges for the year, or in early fall. When you choose to divide your plants will largely be dependent on where you live.
Dividing in late winter or early spring gives your transplants time to establish themselves before next winter. However fresh transplants are vulnerable to late frosts. If you wait until spring before you divide your plant be careful not to damage new shoots as you divide.
If you choose to divide your plants in the fall or in late summer wait until after the flowers have gone to seed. You should also wait until the temperatures have started to cool. This helps to avoid stressing the plant or the transplants. However, dividing at the start of fall does not give your transplants much time to become established before the winter temperatures arrive.
Hellebores growing in containers can be divided in either the early fall or late winter. Simply place the potted transplants in a sheltered location, such as a greenhouse, to protect them from winter frosts.
Water the plant and soil lightly before you begin. This helps to soften the soil.
With a sharp shovel dig a circle at least 8 inches from the edge of the stems or foliage of the plant.
Dig deeply all around the plant. Aim to dig deep enough to get completely under the root system of the plant. As you dig, press the shovel inwards to gently lift the plant. You are aiming to lift as much of the plant intact as possible. Continue to dig around the plant until you are able to lift it easily. This may mean circling the plant several times.
With the shovel, carefully lift the plant. Wash the soil off the roots. Lay the plant on its side so that you can clearly see the crown. This is the point where the leaves and stems meet the roots. The thickest root is the rhizome.
Use a sharp knife or a garden scissors to cut through the rhizome. In addition to a healthy chunk of rhizome, each new division should have a couple of stems and several roots.
Plant each newly separated section as soon as possible. Store in a bucket of water until you are ready to transplant. Divisions should not be allowed to dry out.
To transplant dig a hole in well worked soil. Make a roughly 6 inch hole in the soil.
Take the division out of the water and position in the hole so that the crown is level with the earth. Gently tease apart the roots so that they spread naturally.
Refill the hole, being careful not to allow the division to sink too low into the ground. If possible hold the division with one hand, keeping the crown level with the soil, while infilling the hole with the other. Gently firm down the soil and moisten the soil with a watering can. Tamp the damp soil to remove any air pockets.
Water regularly while the plants establish themselves in their new position. It may take a year for the plants to settle and resume flowering.
Remember to always wear gloves when handling hellebore plants. The sap of the plant can irritate the skin.
Attractive, reliable and pleasingly hardy it is easy to see why the Lenten Rose is such a popular early season member of the garden.
An attractive, slow spreading plant, the hellebore is a reliable addition to the spring garden. Pleasingly easy to grow, once established the hellebore requires little regular attention.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.