You have to love a flower with the spunk to bloom in defiance of winter. You have to love the Lenten Rose.
Formally named Helleborus x hybridus, it was awarded Plant of the Year 2005 by the Perennial Plant Association, an honor long overdue, according to the hellebore's biggest champion, David Culp.
"I've been beating this drum for several decades now," said Culp, of Downingtown, Pa., and one of the nation's top hellebore hybridizers.
"The simplicity of its form, the artful array of colors, its undeniable grace," said Culp, ticking off the reasons why he says he is "addicted" to his hellebores.
The qualities that earned the Lenten Rose its honors are much more practical, however.
Steven Still, executive director of the association and a professor of landscape horticulture at Ohio State University, said the hellebore was the runaway winner in balloting among 800 members, which include everyone from educators to designers. The winning plant has to please a range of disciplines, he said.
The Lenten Rose, named for the time of year in which it blooms, fit the association's requirements for low maintenance, easy propagation, ornamental features and suitability for all climate zones.
"It is a tough plant, and unless the deer are completely starved, they don't eat it," said Still. "And I like it for the evergreen leaves. It has very nice foliage in the summer."
Hellebores come in dizzying variety: doubles, fringed edges, star-shaped, colors from white to a purple that is nearly black, with yellow and green in between.
The flower is grouped by strain, instead of by named cultivars, because it is propagated by seed, and the offspring may not resemble the parent.
It flowers in late winter, amid the last traces of snow, and continues until late May. It is easy to grow, tolerating dry conditions and light to deep shade, and clumps can remain undisturbed for many years.
Hellebores inspire festivals in England and Europe, where hybridizers like Culp make annual pilgrimages. It is just beginning to catch fire in the United States.
"The hellebore is queen of the winter garden," said Culp, "and the perfect cure for cabin fever."
Valley View Farms
11035 York Road
Cockeysville, MD 21030
11300 Baltimore Ave.
Beltsville, MD 20705
Spring Hill Nurseries
P.O. Box 330
Harrison, OH 45030
White Flower Farm
P.O. Box 50
Litchfield, CT 06759
1 Garden Lane
Hodges, S.C. 29695
Pine Knot Farms
681 Rockchurch Road
Clarksville, VA 23927
A wholesaler and hellebore specialist, Pine Knot Farms is open to the public on Hellebore Days, held every year on the last Saturday in February and the first Saturday in March, and then on Fridays and Saturdays from March 15 to June 15.
Hellebores flower in an amazing array of colors, shapes and forms, and they are very easy to grow, even from seed. But buy them when they are in bloom, advises David Culp, so you will be certain of the color.
Hellebores prefer moist, but not wet, rich, organic soil in full to light shade, but can easily survive dry spells.
In the mid-Atlantic states where snow cover is not reliable, a blanket of mulch is recommended. Gently remove last year's damaged foliage in January, before the buds emerge.
Hellebores are big feeders, so a time-release fertilizer, such as Osmocote, is recommended.
Hellebores teach patience, because they spread slowly. Division, done in early spring or late fall, is the best way to propagate.
If you harvest and sow the seeds that appear at the base of the plant (a good idea because it prevents them from sowing themselves in the crown of the parent plant), it might be several years before the new plant blooms. And it is likely to be a different color than its parent.
The plant has few pest or disease problems and deer do not like it.
Hellebores droop as a natural defense against the rain, sleet and snow that would destroy their pollen. But they can be delightfully displayed by cutting them with a two-inch stem and floating them in a bowl of water. The cut flowers will actually fade to different colors over time.
For more information on hellebores, read Gardener's Guide to Growing Hellebores, by Graham Rice & Elizabeth Strangman (Timber Press, 2001, $19.95).