Smith County Horticulturist
Another early-season blooming perennial is Lenten Rose. These wonderful, long-lived, low-growing, evergreen plants are very hardy, long-lived and are among the first to bloom each year. Lenten Rose belongs to the genus Helleborus, and they 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 and early spring when they are getting more sun under the leafless trees.
Morning sun/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 needed when they are not actively growing in the summer.
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.
Hellebores are very slow to bloom from seed, taking 3 to 5 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 Lenten 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 not unusual to end up with a spreading colony from just a few initial plants.
There are several new varieties, mostly hybrids, 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 won’t usually be 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, interest year-round, and a durable perennial for the shady parts of your landscape.
Keith Hansen is Smith County Horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. His web page is http://EastTexasGardening.tamu.edu