Though the first day of spring is in March, the weather outside sometimes takes a few weeks to get the memo. While Southern gardens are in full swing, Zone 5 and 6 planters still have a few weeks to go before they can expect spring bulbs to be out in force. One plant that defies the cold and damp of early spring, however, is the Lenten rose.
Lenten roses, or hellebores, are extremely early bloomers, and you can expect flowers in March before anything else in your garden wakes up for the season. For this reason, they make wonderful additions to planting areas near your front door or walkway where you’re sure to see it as you walk by — a friendly reminder that warmer days are on the way.
Lenten Rose Basics
Growing Zones: 4-8
Bloom Time: Flowers in very early spring
Exposure: Part sun to shade
Mature Size: From 8-18 inches tall, depending on variety
Notes: Lenten roses look similar to peonies when their thick stems pop up from the east, sometimes through the snow. Stems may appear green or reddish-purple; leaves are green and unfurl shortly before flowers open. Flowers fade as temperatures climb but maintain their shape for about two months. Green leaves will last until winter. Note that Lenten roses are poisonous, so plant with caution if you have children or pets.
Growing Lenten Roses in the Landscape
Lenten roses are related to buttercups and are native to Asia. In the wild they grow in woodland settings, so a cool, shady spot with good drainage is ideal. Like bulbs, Lenten roses can be planted under deciduous trees, as they enjoy shade in the heat of summer. Nodding flowers with five petals come in many colors, including shade of white, green, pink and purple.
Planting Lenten Roses
For best success, prepare the soil in a place that receives dappled shade by turning in extra compost to increase fertility. Lenten roses require good drainage, so choose a high spot rather than an area where puddles form, and avoid clay soils. Plant the root ball so the crown is just below the soil, being careful not to plant too deeply. Water well.
Lenten roses are quite drought-tolerant once established but in their first growing season should be watered once a week during dry spells. Don’t be disappointed if spring plantings don’t produce many flowers in their first year, as plants can be slow to start.
Ongoing Care for Lenten Roses
Once Lenten roses are established, they require little care and only infrequent watering during severe drought. In September, add bone meal fertilizer to the soil around the plant; you can fertilize again in very early spring with a top dressing of compost as stems begin to push through the soil.
It’s best to prune away dead stems in very early spring as well, though you could also do it during a winter thaw to avoid confusing old growth with new, blossom-bearing stems. Simply use a bypass pruner to cut stems to the ground. Lenten roses will self sow if not deadheaded, but because flowers look nice for so long, you may prefer to pull out any volunteer seedlings as they come up. It’s also possible to let seedlings grow to see what color flowers you get — offspring aren’t necessarily the same color as their parent plants, and this can be a fun experiment, or at least a way to propagate more Lenten roses to transplant to other areas of your garden.