Helleborus-orientalis1Helleborus xhybridus – Lenten Rose: I’ve never met a homeowner or a landscaper who hasn’t complained about the dearth of plants for dry shade.  Frankly, candidate “Numero Uno” is Helleborus xhybridus, the Lenten Rose.  It will, of course, grow larger and faster with moisture but, once established and provided with good drainage, its capacity to survive and thrive in dry shade is amazing.

The Perennial Plant Association named Helleborus x hybridus as its 2005 Plant of the Year.  The Lenten Rose is actually a hybrid of fifteen species. And, of course, the hybridizing has increased exponentially in the past five years.  Today’s hybrids have an incredible range of colors from white to plum (almost black) including ruby red, pink and yellow.  It is now possible to order them by color.  There are singles and doubles as well as picotee edges, and spotted petals.  None of these new hybrids are inexpensive but they are worth the price, providing texture, long bloom and unusual colors.

Hardy from zones 4-9, this leathery evergreen needs plenty of room.  Seedlings may only need a few inches initially, but as they mature, they will spread to fill an 18-24” space.  Mature plants often have fifty or more flowers and in hospitable sites, will self-sow.  This undemanding perennial performs best in partial to full shade in well-drained, humus-rich soil.  It needs regular watering to get established but afterward can be quite drought tolerant. If the leaves look dried or tattered at the end of winter, simply cut them to the ground and new foliage will emerge in late winter or early spring.

Long lasting blooms appear in March, April, or May depending on the microclimate in which the Lenten Rose is located.  Planted facing south (under a deciduous tree which will shade it during the summer) and against a house wall which retains some heat through the winter, mine bloom in March but those planted facing north and under large evergreen shrubs ( a colder microclimate) do not show their blooms until late April or May. Once in bloom, the blossoms last for approximately two months.

Happily, Helleborus are ignored by deer but the alkaloids in the foliage also mean that humans who are susceptible to dermatitis should wear gloves when working with Lenten Rose.

The evergreen foliage resembles a large umbrella and is an excellent background for small spring bulbs like the dwarf Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’, Scilla siberica (Squill)and Muscari (Grape Hyacinth). It also provides a wonderful contrast to other shade perennials that have finely textured foliage such as ferns, Corydalis and Dicentra (Bleeding Heart)

If you have any shade at all, this is a must-have perennial that will be a garden contributor for all twelve months of the year.