February / 2000
At Home in the Garden

When a rose is not a rose
by:  

  One group of evergreen hardy perennials that in the past have been more popular in Europe than in the United States is the Hellebores. Blooming in mid to late winter, they are quickly becoming popular additions to many Kentucky gardens.

  The two most common varieties available in our area are the Lenten Rose, Helleborus orientalis, and Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger. With the common name of rose, you would think that some part of the plant would look or smell like roses. Think again. The only thing they have in common with a rose is that they bloom for a long period of time. In our area they can bloom for up to 10 weeks with no trouble at all.

  Lenten and Christmas Rose prefer a garden spot that is shady and moist, but can be incredibly drought-tolerant once established. The leaves and flowers arise directly from the root system, giving the plant a beautiful clumplike habit. Because of the unusual bloom time I prefer to plant them along walkways or by a porch that is commonly used in the winter. 

  Christmas Rose grows as a clump, 12 to 18 inches tall and 12 to 15 inches wide. Cultivated varieties are difficult to find since they are slow to increase in size if propagated by division. The plants available in most garden centers are generally seed-grown, and the flowers can vary widely in color but are most commonly white.

  Lenten Rose is very similar to the Christmas Rose but the foliage is generally darker green and more sharply serrate. It flowers in groups of three or more and the color ranges from white to pink and purple. Sometimes the flowers are spotted inside and make a beautiful long-lasting arrangement if you can bring yourself to cut them from the garden. The Lenten Rose is generally considered easier to grow than the Christmas Rose and is slightly more drought-tolerant. This is one of the few perennials that will thrive under the dry shade of a tree. The foliage can become scorched by cold winter weather, but is easily trimmed back and new growth will quickly develop. The only real pest is crown rot, which can develop if the site is excessively moist.

  Helleborus is derived from the Greek words helein, to injure, and bora, food, referring to the leaves and roots, which are poisonous if eaten. This is an excellent deer-resistant perennial because the foliage is said to have a very bitter taste.