Not Your Grandmother’s Lenten Roses: Helleborus for a Modern Era
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Common names are a slippery slope for the keen gardener. Sometimes they get it right, but sometimes they get it woefully wrong. The name Lenten Rose, typically referring to the complex species Helleborus x hybridus, accurately identifies the blooming window for this charming winter garden staple.
The offspring from Helleborus x hybridus plants have been perpetuating in eastern North American gardens for more than a hundred years. Their rainbow of flower colors, robust evergreen leaves, and deer resistance make them the ideal candidate in the modern garden, as well. Inevitably when I travel someone has a story about their grandmother’s plant, but we are also starting to hear a story of how it is starting to spread. Not to worry though: there is hope for the modern winter gardener to continue to have this plant in their gardens.
The genus Helleborus
The center for diversity for Helleborus is in the Mediterranean and Balkan regions of the world. There are more than 20 recognized species; but they are promiscuous and prone to producing hybrids when species are growing near each other in the wild or in a garden. Some of the species have colorful leaves, some have small flowers, and others are completely green. This natural diversity of form makes for interesting offspring. The common name ‘Lenten Rose’ usually refers to the historical complex H. x hybridus, which is made up of a mix-match of more than seven species (hence the specific epithet “hybridus”)!
The common name Lenten rose is misleading because the species are in the Ranunculaceae, the buttercup family, not Rosaceae, the Rose Family. The typically poisonous characteristics of the buttercups are what give Helleborus its deer-
resistance. There are strong alkaloids that make it distasteful when nibbled (that being said, deer will eat anything if they’re hungry enough!). This is something gardeners need to be aware of as they are managing their gardens, as the alkaloids can also stain your hands and can cause dermatitis if you handle a lot of the foliage or seeds for a long period of time.
Invasiveness of H. x hybridus
There is a scientific definition for ‘invasive species’, and Helleborus x hybridus meets the terms. According to Iannone, et al. (2021), an invasive species is “a species that (a) is nonnative to a specified geographic area, (b) was introduced by humans (intentionally or unintentionally), and (c) does or can cause environmental or economic harm or harm to humans.”
Despite coming from a place where the soils are very alkaline and well-drained, most Helleborus species tolerate our Southeastern climate and moist, acidic soil very well. In the case of H. x hybridus, it is a little too tolerant. The plants root firmly
and produce copious amounts of viable seed that will germinate and become a blanket beneath the canopy of the mother plant. I used to get phone calls from gardeners asking me why their Helleborus flowers had changed colors from the one they’d bought! I had to break it to them that what they were seeing were the offspring from the one they’d purchased, and they would need to dig up those to let the desirable one grow.
But being an annoying garden plant does not make a plant “invasive”. The last part of Iannone, et al. ‘s definition about the “environmental or economic harm” is the crux. Some of the older patches of H. x hybridus have started to escape into woodland areas and are able to stifle our favorite native understory flowers. They prevent seedlings of other plants from getting established as dense mats of their offspring grow. Additionally, because of their chemistry, they are not a source of food for animals, so as their patches get bigger, we create food deserts in our natural areas. You could argue that it is causing both environmental and economic harm when a human has to go through the extra layer of trouble to remove a stand from a natural area.
New Varieties Solving Old Problems
Now, for the good news!
Helleborus are beautiful plants and there have been some breakthroughs in the modern breeding of these species. There are several human-made hybrids between the more colorful and distant species that have resulted in almost complete sterility, meaning the plants don’t make viable seed. Some of these are: H. x iburgensis, H x. glandorfensis, and H. x ballardiae. They enhance all of the desirable traits of Helleborus: drought tolerant; dense show of beautiful flowers that are outward facing; they come in a rainbow of colors; and the foliage is evergreen and variegated. Different breeding companies have released their own strains and trademarked lines. Juniper Level Botanic Garden in Raleigh, NC has an excellent collection of Helleborus, including old and new varieties and species, and now is the perfect time to see them at their Winter Open House Days (February 24,25,26 and March 3,4,5).
There is still hope for your grandmother’s old Lenten Rose too. The foliage in some of the older varieties will hide the flowers beneath them, because the flowers do not grow taller than the old leaves. To enhance the flower show, cut all of the old foliage off (being careful not to cut the flower buds!) when you start to see the flower stalks grow up. The plant will make a fresh flush of leaves after it is done flowering, and not looking at tired foliage will help you appreciate the flowers even more. Simply cut the flower stalks off after the flowers fade to a white/green to remove the seeds before they drop. Put these stalks in your trashcan, not your compost pile!
Amanda Wilkins is the Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.