Helleborus

Everyone anticipates spring’s arrival and the subsequent awakening of plants from their winter slumber. If you’re like me, every plant exhibiting signs of life is exciting: from the complex flowers of Acer saccharinum to the showy flowers of the magnolias, all are welcome. At Secrest Arboretum you can find many plants unknown to the average gardener, but there is one plant that seems to remain in obscurity—Helleborus, or Lenten Rose. The people who know and grow this plant love it, but for many it remains a mystery. 

Hellebores, members of the Ranuculaceae family, are perennial plants native to Europe, where they are found in open meadows. In our gardens we usually plant them in the shade in moist but welldrained soils, though they will thrive under drier conditions or neglect. Hellebores are susceptible to root rots in wet soils, so avoid planting in such locations. These care-free perennials are a 2024 Secrest Select* perennial because of their performance at Secrest.

The showy part of the plant, what we would call the petals, are not petals at all, they are actually sepals. Sepals serve to protect the developing reproductive structures on the inside. The real petals are inside the sepals and are considered tubular nectaries. Hellebores can flower anytime from November to April depending on the species.

Helleborus nigerHellebores are divided into two groups, those with stems (caulescent) and those without stems (acaulescent). Most of the plants in the nursery trade today are the acaulescent types,  most notably Helleborus × hybridus and several newer hybrids. These plants have flowers that emerge from the soil in late winter or early spring and provide a floral display for about  eight weeks. Even after the foliage emerges, the sepals retain much of their color and remain showy until finally bending to the ground in June. Most acaulescent types, including  Helleborus × hybridus, mature to around 12” tall and have dark green leathery leaves. The foliage is evergreen in nature, though it begins to brown in late winter. Foliage of acaulescent  types should be removed just as the flowers begin to emerge from the crown of the plant. The leaves act as a protectant for the flower buds, preventing them from opening too early and  being damaged by cold.

Plant breeders have been improving hybrids by selecting for plants that hold their flowers upright, and thus more visibly. New colors, patterns, speckles, foliage, and sepal numbers are constantly being introduced to the trade, contributing to the excitement about this plant. Hellebores will selfseed in the garden but have never exhibited invasive tendencies. Seedlings should be removed if one desires to maintain the parent cultivar. All parts of the Hellebore contain alkaloids, making the plant poisonous. The poisonous nature contributes to Helleborus being deer and rabbit resistant, though human poisoning is rare in modernity. The plant was used as a poison in ancient times. One report by the Greek geographer, Pausanias, states that statesmen Solon ordered hellebore roots to be thrown into the water supplies of the towns he was going to besiege. The towns were overthrown because the residents were  suffering from the effects of the poisoning. Stop by Secrest Arboretum or your local public garden to see these wonderful plants.

*Secrest Select plants are plants cultivated at Secrest Arboretum that have displayed outstanding ornamental, ecological, and functional traits.

--Paul Snyder, Operations Manager snyder1062@osu.edu