Lenten Rose, or Helleborus, is a winter-flowering beauty that should be included in every garden with a shady spot. With evergreen leaves and nodding flowers in shades ranging from pure white to deepest purple, Lenten rose blooms typically emerge in late January in the South, and often persist until late April. They prefer good garden soil and are fairly drought tolerant, once established. I find them to be one of the most useful perennials for part shade and dry shade (they will likely rot in soil that remains wet for long periods of time). Deer and rabbits don’t bother them, which is another plus for those of us who struggle with this issue from time to time.
Order Lenten rose from a mail-order nursery for spring planting, or purchase them in bloom this month at a garden center. Every January I tell myself I don’t need more of them, yet it seems that I almost always end up buying one or two new varieties to add to shady areas of my garden. I like to plant newly purchased Lenten rose in the spring once the worst of winter weather has passed, so I place them in a sheltered area, such as a screened porch, where I can enjoy the blooms until late March or early April, when they’ll go into the garden. I may feed them in spring when I’m sprinkling organic fertilizer around camellias and gardenias, but more often, I just give them a top dressing of compost. I do amend the soil with a few inches of good compost on planting day to give them a good start.
There are many companion plants for hellebores, and I like to combine them with camellias, prostrate yew, gardenias, native azaleas, and groundcovers such as pachysandra. They work well with other dry shade perennials such as barrenwort and Euphorbia ‘Robbiae’. I can’t think of a more elegant combination for shade than a fall-blooming camellia underplanted with groups of Lenten Rose.
There are many types of hellebores, and if you want to learn more about them, pick up The Layered Garden by David L. Culp at your local bookstore. A collector and breeder of hellebores, David shares photographs of his Connecticut garden through the seasons in this delightful book. Even though I garden and work in the South, his photos and narrative are an inspiration, and I reach for this book often on long winter days when I’m longing for spring.