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A Late Winter Love Letter

As I write, it’s gloomy, dank, and unpleasantly cold. You know, one of those breezy winter days when it’s way nicer to be looking out the window, hand wrapped around a warm mug of something caffeinated, than to be out in the garden. Only the bravest plants have the gumption to bloom at this time of year. My yard hosts one such rugged perennial that I simply adore: Hellebore, aka Lenten Rose.

This isn’t just one of my favorite early-blooming perennials. I consider hybrid hellebores to be one of the best perennials for our area, bar none. Here are its strengths:

  • It’s evergreen

  • It takes dry shade when established

  • Deer don’t eat it; I repeat, DEER DON’T EAT IT; neither do voles or rabbits

  • It’s generally disease-free in the garden

  • Depending on the type, it multiplies on its own without becoming a thug

  • And, of course, it blooms its head off usually starting in late January

Weaknesses? I don’t know of any. Well, it’s not native, if you’re doing a strictly native garden, I guess. Unfortunately there’s no native “equivalent” plant, either.

There are lots of species of hellebores around, although some don’t approve of our hot sticky summers. One kind that does like us is called Bear’s Foot Hellebore (H. foetidus), with interesting strappy dark green leaves and dense clusters of bright chartreuse blooms in winter. It matures into big clumps that are striking in the shady garden.

But far and away the type of hellebore you’ll see most often in Tennessee gardens is the hybrid complex commonly called Lenten Rose.

Lenten Roses have been around for a while, with ‘Heritage Strain’ having been pretty popular for at least a couple of decades. Although individual colors are available, a typical Lenten Rose plant could have blooms in any one of a bunch of colors, from greenish-white through pinks and mauves to a deep dusky maroon, thanks to the multiple species in the breeding of the plant we call Lenten Rose. It obviously pays to buy a plant in bloom if you’re after a particular hue. Typical Lenten Roses have flowers that face out and often down, which I guess could be considered a drawback. Myself, I think they look great.

Caption: A typical Lenten Rose in full bloom in my front yard today (March 1). It’s near the walk to my door and it makes me happy every time I go shivering by.

Hellebore breeders have been busy the last decade or so, working on double flowers or getting the blooms to look up and face the viewer, with pretty spectacular results. Many of the newer hybrids have attractive silver marbling or veins on the leaves, too, which makes the foliage quite handsome. Most are complex crosses of three or four species and as a result are sterile, so you don’t get the big crop of baby hellebores you get with the older Lenten Rose types. But, boy, talk about garden impact. And, like all Lenten Roses, they get bigger and better year after year.

Caption: This is ‘Pink Frost’, a particular fave of mine. I took this shot in the middle of February!

There are quite a few of these newer upward-facing hybrid types available: ‘Ivory Prince’, the HGC series including the pictured ‘Pink Frost’, ‘Champion’, ‘Cinnamon Snow’ and others. And there are tons of doubles around now in a wide range of colors, like the ‘Mardi Gras’ and ‘Winter Jewels’ series. You can’t go wrong with any of them.

But wait – there’s more! You might think something so cool might be touchy or difficult, but no. Hellebores are a snap to grow. They like part shade – mine are under big, high-canopied oaks and hickories –and decent drainage. They’ll take some sun as long as it’s not the blasting afternoon 2PM to 5PM variety. That’s about it. You can throw Plant-Tone around them if you think of it, but I confess I haven’t and you can see they do fine. By the end of the winter the older foliage can get a little ratty looking, but there will be lots of fresh new growth coming on and you can cut off any offenders.

No kidding, give yourself some perpetual winter cheer and get yourself some Lenten Roses. And now’s the best time to pick your colors, because they’re in full bloom.

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Moore & Moore Garden Center

8216 Highway 100,
Nashville, TN 37221
Phone. 615-662-8849
Fax. 615-662-3549
Email. info@mooreandmoore.com

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