Name: Lenten rose or oriental hellebore is the name of this very decorative early garden flower.
The common name alludes to the related Christmas rose, which flowers in winter. The Lenten rose follows a few weeks later in the run-up to Easter.
Botanical name: The botanical name is Helleborus orientalis.
The “helleborus” part is the Latin name, and the second – or specific – part “orientalis” means it came from the orient or east, but in this case being the near east; parts of Greece, Turkey and Caucasus region.
Family: Hellebore is a member of the buttercup, or Ranunculaceae, family, with other very beautiful garden plants, such as clematis, anemone, delphinium, aconite, thalictrum and monkshood.
Some of these have winter storage tubers, which allow them flower early in the growing season. Other kinds share a rose-like flower shape, hence the reference to rose in the plant common names.
It is strange that hellebores are not much better known and much more widely grown flowers.
However, it is by no means rare, and it is grown in many gardens, but there are still lots of gardens that would benefit from its outstanding charm.
This species is reliable, hardy and easy to grow. It has been used for breeding with other species to produce varieties with shades of plum, purple and leaden slate to green, yellow, white and soft pink.
The large petals are really sepals, which in most flowers are green, leaf-like structures that form the outside cover of the flower bud.
Hellebore has no petals as such but has evolved its sepals to be colourful and to play the role of petals in attracting pollinators.
These flower structures have certain advantages over petals, being much more robust and long-lasting.
When each flower has been pollinated, the sepals do not fall away, as petals would, but remain there just changing colour to duller shades of green and plum-red and providing great contrast background for the flowers still opening.
This is the reason that the display is so long-lasting.
Hellebores normally open their flowers before any spring bulb, including snowdrops, but they look great with spring bulbs nearby.
The combination of snowdrops, crocus, daffodils and even tulips with hellebores is delightful and the hellebores last the full flowering period of all those kinds of spring bulbs.
While they tolerate light shade very well, growth and flowering are better in good light.
Long-flowering, the plants are also very long-lived, surviving for many decades, and often self-sowing where the conditions are right.
Look for seedlings when weeding, or even collect seed for sowing to grow new plants. Leaf-spot disease can be a nuisance and cutting away foliage in autumn helps to reduce the carry-over to flowering time. Now is a good time to plant!
The photograph above shows damage to the flowers of Japanese camellia.
The Japanese varieties are more susceptible to frost damage and are damaged to a greater or lesser degree every winter – with a few exceptions, such as varieties ‘Adolphe Audusson’ , which is shown in the photograph, and ‘Jupiter’, a good red-flowered variety.
‘Adolphe Audusson’ flowers from February to May and, although it loses a flush of flowers quite often, it still manages to flower very well.
When one flush of flowers is damaged by frost it is usually replaced quickly by another.
In recent years, the Williamsii varieties, bred in Cornwall, have largely replaced the Japanese varieties because they are much hardier, less susceptible to frost and flower even as quite small, young plants.
Most kinds of this hybrid variety also have the attractive aspect of shedding their spent flowers, which tend to remain on the Japanese varieties.
The Williamsii varieties are more versatile in use and can be made to grow as hedging and as a very pretty wall shrub, apart from their usual freestanding deployment. If you have some old, unsatisfactory Japanese camellias, consider removing them and replacing with some of Williamsii hybrids, which will be more successful.
Fruit, vegetables and herbs
It is time to sow most vegetables during good weather with the soil in good condition. It is important to take advantage of any good spell of weather that comes along, but there is usually a long enough dry spell about this time of year to allow for seed sowing. Onion sets can be put in too, if not already done.
Most lawns need feeding to boost new grass growth and set up the lawn nicely going into summer. Regular mowing should be well under way. Patchy areas or areas affected by moss growth can be over-sown to increase the growth of grass. Sow lawn seed by scattering it when rain is due.
Greenhouse and house plants
Re-pot any house plants that are pot-bound and tending to topple over or dry out very easily. Sow sweetcorn and runner beans for planting out at the end of May. Sow seeds of sweet peppers and chilli peppers. Feed and water heavily all greenhouse plants, if not already done. Sow basil indoors.
Flower seeds sown earlier will need pricking out and growing on, perhaps including feeding, to make good-sized plants for planting out in May. Hardy flowers can be sown. Gladiolus and dahlias can be planted directly outdoors from the middle of the month, and lilies can also be potted up now.
Trees, shrubs and roses
Prune roses if not done, it is almost too late as the plants are now shooting well. Plant broad-leaved and coniferous evergreens now when the sap is rising and they will root quickly, but be sure to give a good watering at planting and two weeks later and that is usually all they need, except in dry spells.