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Ask a Master Gardener: Hellebores can be hard to establish, but the rewards are many

Lenten rose is another name for this perennial.

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Hellebores can be a range of colors, from pure white to plum. (Getty Images)

Q: A friend sent me photos of Lenten roses blooming in his garden in Sweden. So pretty. Can we grow them here?

A: Lenten rose is another name for hellebores. Master gardener Kathy Hannan has had success growing them here, so we asked her to write about them. Here’s what she had to say:

Barren winters and their lack of color make hellebores the swans of the early season garden. Their nodding, saucer-shaped flowers come in a large range of sumptuous colors from pure white to plum. They are deer-resistant and require little care. It is no wonder their popularity is on the increase.

Hellebores, referred to by the hopeful as Lenten roses, get their ecclesiastical nickname from a a growing season that begins in mid-winter and extends into the season of Lent. However, since Easter is the most elusive of holidays, their hopeful designation means less to us in the Northland. Blooms here won’t be apparent until May or June, but once here, they will last six weeks or longer.

These lovely plants remain unknown to many gardeners despite their toughness, beauty, hardiness (zones 4-9), wonderful blooming habit and having been named the Perennial Plant Association Plant of the Year in 2005.

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Lenten roses require little maintenance. They do best in dappled shade, but in our region they appreciate full sun. They are relatively drought-resistant and do best with consistent moisture in well-drained soil — they do not like soggy soil! The alkaloids in their leaves and seeds can cause mild dermatitis, so gardeners should wear gloves when handling plants. Because they are filled with those alkaloid toxins, they are disease-resistant, bugs won’t eat them, deer won’t munch on them, and when it comes to distinctive 1-2 inch blooms in winter — late, late winter — no other perennials can touch them. They will add color and texture to the ornamental shade garden, under trees or naturalized in woodland areas.

They have their best chance of retaining their color if planted close together. Divisions should be made in the fall when they can be lifted, divided and re-set into deep loam. They are toxic, and their leaves are serrated and very sharp, so wear gloves! The toothed, leathery foliage remains attractive throughout the growing season, remaining evergreen in mild climates and even persisting under snow. Foliage may look a bit ragged in the spring here, but you can cut the damaged leaves off, and new ones will grow.

Hellebores have a reputation for being difficult to establish, but the plants in my garden have performed well for years.

Written by U of M Extension Master Gardeners in St. Louis County. Send questions to features@duluthnews.com.

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Related Topics: HOME AND GARDENGARDENING
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