‘Volunteer Gardener’ February in the Garden: The Lenten Rose

Lenten Rose from Volunteer Gardener
Helleborus orientalis – the Lenten rose | Credit: Jan Haerer

Meet the Lenten rose. It’s actually a species of hellebore, but gets its name because it blooms in February around the same time as the beginning of Lent, an important season in the Christian calendar. The botanical name of this plant is Helleborus, commonly referred to as “hellebores.” There are 22 different species of this wonderful flowering herbaceous perennial, the most popular variety being Helleborus orientalis.

Some people avoid planting hellebores because ithey can be pricey up-front. However, hellebores are well worth the investment when you consider how incredibly versatile they are. For example, are you looking for a plant that is long-lived, with a long bloom time and that produces beautiful flowers for landscape or cutting? Or perhaps you’re in the market for something that is evergreen, thrives in the shade, and is disliked by deer and rodents. Hellebores are the answer!

These plants have an interesting history dating back to the Greek Empire. Its name is derived from two ancient Greek words: helein, meaning “to injure,” and bora, meaning “food.” As you might guess from the translation of its name, all parts of the hellebore plant are toxic, which is why animals that happily munch through your garden will give a wide birth to these beauties!

Hellebores are lovely in a woodland setting, growing at the base of deciduous trees. They like even moisture, a soil high in organic matter (lots of leaf mulch), dappled shade and plenty of room to spread out over the years. They need little in terms of fertilizer; in fact, even a small amount of it will cause a profusion of leaves with few flowers.

Hellebores are an important local cut flower because they grow so readily and happily in our Middle Tennessee climate. The helleborus species with the most upward-facing blooms and the largest range of coloration is orientalis. With a broad range of colors (green, white, pink, yellow, coral, burgundy, black) and styles (singles, doubles, ruffles, freckles, even burgundy stems) there is a hellebore for every garden color palette.

Hellebore flowers can be harvested over a long period, sometimes even until the end of Lent (Easter). The blooms can be cut as early as February, but wait until the stamens become elongated. If you cut when the buds first open, the blooms will not last long. Unlike nearly every other cut flower, the older the hellebore bloom, the longer it will last in the vase. The mature flowers make wonderful boutonnieres and corsages because they last so long out of the vase and even “toughen” a bit with age.

Purchase some hellebores for your garden – you’ll thank me for years to come!

Happy Gardening!

Laura Bigbee-Fott is a Davidson County Master Gardener. She owns Whites Creek Flower Farm and runs a floral event and wedding design business called Everything Blooms.

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