Botanical name: Helleborus orientalis
Family: Ranunculaceae (Buttercup)
Sources of origin: W. Asia, Black Sea area, Armenia
Class: Hardy perennial
Display period: March, April
Height: 18 inches
Environment: Light shade
Emerging as winter changes into spring, the Lenten rose is one of the most exciting plants in the garden. Without ever having seen them, I recognized the plants the moment I came upon them for the first time because of their distinctive characteristics. They had formed a little colony near the base of a large tree, probably through re-seeding -- not uncommon for Helleborus.
To call the plant "a rose" is misleading, for the blossoms could never be mistaken for one. Comparing the Lenten rose to a buttercup, a member of the same family, comes closer to the mark. But whereas the shape and formation of the petals in the two plants are similar, the blooms of the Lenten rose are larger and infinitely more resplendent. What's more, the Lenten rose's hue varies from cream to green and pink and even maroon. The only area of yellow in its makeup occurs in its full, bushy stamens. The foliage too, handsome and dramatic, is uniquely like a palm's.
The genus name, Helleborus, derives from the Greek, "helein," to kill. The sinister association is perhaps due to the plant's poisonous sap, which in times past was taken as a purgative. According to legend, a cowherd, who kept his cows fit with the potion, gave it to a princess to "purge" her of the notion that she had been changed into a cow. His reward was her hand in marriage.
"Bora" is Greek for food, although there's nothing to indicate the hellebore was so used. The species' name, orientalis, refers to its origins in the Orient.
Long-lived, the Lenten rose is easier to grow than its virtual twin, the Christmas rose. It needs well-drained and fertile soil that is deeply prepared. Its presence in a garden is perceived by the cognoscenti as a mark of the grower's discernment and taste.