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Embrace Spring with Hellebore: A Guide to Growing Lenten Roses

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An overhead view of a speckled pink Helleborus flower, featuring dark pink petals with lighter pink flecks and a bright yellow center surrounded by numerous stamens.

Throughout much of the year, these small, evergreen perennials are easy to walk past. But this incredible perennial is one of the first indicators that spring is nearing, awaking when many other plants are still asleep. These lovely, rose-like flowers go by many names but are most commonly called Lenten Rose. Here is everything you need to know about hellebore.

A close up of a purple flower.

The difference between Christmas and Lenten Rose

Christmas Rose commonly refers to Helleborus niger, while Lenten Rose refers to Helleborus orientalis and hybrids. The common names refer to their bloom times in the milder climates to which they are native.

However, in our St. Louis climate, they’ll often bloom anywhere from late February into May, depending on the weather and cultivar planted.  Many of the hellebore sold today are hybrids. So, while either common name is acceptable, Lenten Rose is often the correct name to use.

A close up of a white flower.

History of Helleborus

Although many stories of hellebore have been told throughout history, legend claims a young child had no gift to give the infant Jesus. Upset, the child began crying. A Christmas rose emerged from the tears as they fell to the ground.

Pliny, a Roman author and naturalist, also documented its uses as early as 1400 B.C.

Medicinally, physicians prescribed Helleborus throughout the centuries. Hellebore has been used to cure paralysis, gout, insanity, and was a common laxative from Medieval times through the Victorian era.

A close up of purple flowers.

Are Helleborus Poisonous?

All parts of Helleborus contain several toxic compounds which are harmful to pets and humans if ingested. It can cause excessive drooling, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. It can also make you lethargic.

Despite its past medicinal use, the plant’s name comes from two Greek words: bora meaning “food” and helein meaning “injures/destroys”. Together they mean “food to injure”.

A close up of pink and green flowers and dark green foliage.

How to Grow Helleborus

Hellebores perform best in woodland-like settings with plenty of organic matter. These deer-resistant perennials are low-maintenance and require very little care once established. They are evergreen, except in the coldest conditions.

To grow in St. Louis:

  • Plant in partial to full shade.
  • Add compost to ensure excellent drainage.
  • Keep evenly moist and provide supplemental water during dry conditions.
  • Don’t plant too deep as this can limit flowering.
  • In early spring, clear the old or damaged foliage when fresh growth appears.
  • If desired, divide plants in the fall.

A close up of a burgundy black flower.
Helleborus, with its delicate blooms that quietly herald the impending spring, is an outstanding addition to any shade garden.