Although its name would lead you to believe otherwise, the Lenten rose is not a rose, but a member of the genus Hellebore. Its name derives from its flowers' resemblance to small roses, and the fact that its blooming season is very early, coinciding with the pre-Easter season of Lent. A member of the buttercup family, the Lenten rose is native to parts of Europe and Asia, and hardy from zone 9 to zone 4.
Of the 15 species of Hellebores, the Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis) and its hybrids are probably the easiest to grow. The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) blooms much earlier (December and January in mild climates) but is more difficult to grow. Hybrids of the two species offer the best of both worlds, making it possible to have the Lenten rose in bloom from late January through early April. Helleborus x hybridus (the hybrids of a number of Helleborus species) was named the 2005 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association.
Hellebores were mentioned in medieval medical texts as a treatment for worms and as a purgative. Gerard, the author of a famous 1633 English herbal, notes that Hellebores were to be found in many a London garden. He also mentions two species found growing wild in English countryside. It is possible that these were introduced as early as the 4th century A.D. by members of the Roman legions, according to the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension.
In late winter, new evergreen leaves emerge along with a flowering stem which produces several 2 1/2-inch flowers. The flowers are extraordinarily long-lasting, persisting for six to eight weeks. Flowers are in shades of white and pink, changing color during their long bloom, with white flowers turning more greenish, and pink flowers becoming a deep, rosy tan. A mature plant forms a clump about 24 to 30 inches wide, and nearly as tall, and can produce dozens of flowers.
Lenten rose like well-drained, fertile soil. To provide the best drainage, a slope or hillside is ideal. In warmer areas, they prefer to be shaded by deciduous trees, but in colder areas will tolerate more sun. They are quite drought tolerant, requiring little extra watering once they are established. The foliage is evergreen, but when the new leaves emerge in late winter, it is best to tidy the plant by trimming off the old ones. The leaves can cause a mild skin irritation, so gloves are recommended when handling this plant.
Both the flowers and leaves are poisonous, making the Lenten rose a good choice in gardens where deer grazing is a problem, since they will not bother it. The University of Illinois Extension Service recommends Lenten rose as both a specimen plant and as a ground cover planted em masse. It makes a good companion for other early-emerging perennials such as bleeding heart, trillium and ferns.