Every gardener's dream plant just got better

A listing of the "virtues" of Lenten rose (Hellebore orientalis) makes it sound as though it's one of those too-good-to-be-true plants sold in the back pages of Sunday supplements.

Lenten rose is almost impossible to kill - even in dense shade. It's perennial and evergreen, so it looks good year-round. It thrives in a variety of climates (Zones 4 to 9, which cover most of the US). Because the plant freely reseeds, you always have an increasing clump - but it never becomes invasive. It's drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, and pest-free.

But the crowning achievement is Lenten rose's lovely flowers, which appear in late winter/early spring (February in the Pacific Northwest, March in Zone 6, varying with the weather). Happily, they aren't here today and gone tomorrow; blossoms usually last six to 10 weeks.

You would think such a plant would be as common as marigolds. Not so. One reason is that gardeners often learn about plants when they see them in bloom at a garden center, and most of us aren't in a nursery in February.

Even if we were, it would be easy to overlook a Lenten rose that hadn't started to flower. The leathery leaves look exotic, but are somewhat coarse.

Ah, but the flowers. Those are difficult to ignore. They're shaped like tiny buttercups, but in shades of chartreuse, cream, pink, and plum - often sprinkled with contrasting spots.

Until recently, it wasn't easy to obtain a particular color of Lenten rose. If you want a cherry-red petunia, you can choose from a number of hybrids. But not with Hellebore orientalis, which is difficult to propagate vegetatively. Most plants sold commercially have been grown from seed and are quite variable.

Finally, that's changing. Hybridizers have recently made breakthroughs, resulting in several outstanding strains of Lenten roses. Sources include Wayside Gardens (www.waysidegardens.com), Pine Knot Farms (www.gloryroad.net/~hellebores), and Piccadilly Farm (706-769-6516) in Bishop, Ga., where annual "Hellebore Days" attract several thousand people the first weekend of March.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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