It has to be a one tough plant to bloom during the chilly winter months. Lenton rose is such a plant, and one worth having to brighten up the dreary days of winter.
Their cheery blooms remind one that winter will soon be over. Lenton roses are wonderful, long-lived, low-growing, evergreen plants that are very hardy, and are among the first to bloom each year. They belong to the genus Helleborus, and are often referred to simply as hellebores.
All hellebores appreciate partly shady conditions, and are great plants to use under deciduous shade trees in the same conditions where you would grow hostas and ferns. They grow best during the fall through early spring when they are getting more sun under the leafless trees. Morning sun and afternoon shade would be another good location for them. They do need protection from the hot summer sun. Their blooms last for many weeks, and the papery bracts turn green and persist into the summer time. Even when not in bloom, the dark green, leathery foliage looks handsome all year, with only a little cleanup of older leaves after the flush of new foliage ends in spring.
Hellebores are tough, and tolerate drought quite well, being originally from areas around the Mediterranean where summers are dry. They do appreciate some irrigation watering during the summer, but also need very well-drained soil. They have alkaloid toxins in their leaves, so they are poisonous, which is why deer virtually leave them alone.
On many varieties, the blooms typically hang downward, so an elevated bed can facilitate viewing the large, papery flowering bracts. Colors typically are muted such as dark and light rose, pink, and white, often with interesting color patterns within the flowers. Hybridizers have made great improvements with these plants, mixing species to come up with interesting foliage patterns, flower colors and even double and cup-shaped flowers.
Hellebores are very slow to bloom from seed, taking three to five years. So it pays to purchase as large a plant as you can afford, unless you have a lot of patience. Up until recently, most Lenton roses sold were seedlings, and flower colors typically were a mix of varying shades. Breeders have now developed many strains with stable flower colors, but their seedlings will not be identical, thanks to bees mixing things up. They germinate very readily from seed, and it is common to have a spreading colony from just a few initial plants.
New varieties, mostly hybrids, are introduced every year, thanks to tissue culture propagation. Examples of some recent introductions include “Josef Lemper,” “Cinnamon Snow” and “Ivory Palace.”
Because of their slowness to flower, hellebores aren’t often found in big-box stores. Look for them at independent garden centers and from the many online plant nurseries specializing in perennials. These are great plants for early season color and interest year round, and they are a durable perennial for the shady parts of your landscape.