Spiny leaves in a bright seafoam green push up through leftover patches of snow in the early spring garden, followed soon by several flowering stalks bursting with large, round flower buds. These are hellebores, often called Lenton Rose, as it traditionally blooms in the early spring garden just before Easter.
Hellebores, with their thick, waxy foliage and earth-toned blooms in steely blue, jade green, white, crimson and many shades of pink, are often the earliest blooming perennials in our area, bursting open even before most daffodils and tulips.
Prized as much for its evergreen foliage as for its early blossoms, the hellebore is a traditional cottage garden favorite. The plant does well in shade, as it blooms well before the trees have leafed out in May. Hellebores come in many sizes, from 6-inch miniatures to 3-foot tall giants. The leaves, thick and waxy, withstand winter's cold beneath the snow, remaining green all season long. New growth begins to push forth in February and March, with the first flowering stalks following soon after.
The foliage lasts all summer long, adding great texture to the garden. Hellebores can have deeply lobed, spiny leaves, smooth round leaves or anywhere in between. Some varieties resemble desert plants, with their large, jade green leaves covered in sharp spines. Other varieties have very dark leaves in blackish maroon or deep forest green. There are also hellebores with bright, blue-green leaves.
The flowers are large and round, bursting out of large, round buds anywhere from late February through April. Reaching 3 inches across, the waxy petals are extremely long-lasting, and many varieties will hold their blooms through summer. Even when the flowers fade, the large seed pods make for interesting structure throughout the growing season. Many varieties feature petals that gradually change color over several weeks in early spring. In fact, some plants may boast flowers in many different color stages all at once. White varieties normally turn to green over the course of a few months in spring, with intermediate shades of cream and rose making for a striking display. The large, dark blue blooms of some hellebores gradually fade to lavender, transforming through several stages of dark red and purple along the way.
Easy to plant and grow, hellebores make a stunning early spring addition to a woodland or shade garden. Once established, the plants spread slowly, so division is usually not required. It is best to leave the plant in one place because the roots do not like to be disturbed. Hellebores will self-sow and form colonies over time.
As hellebores waken in early spring, cut off the leftover, ragged foliage from last year to tidy up the plant and make room for the new buds.