JULIE FINUCANE

My Lenten roses are just starting to bloom, perfectly in season.

Most of the garden’s early bloomers are bulbs, but Lenten rose is a hardy perennial that provides a nearly year-round impact.

Not surprisingly, flowers usually appear during Lent, the six weeks prior to Easter. Stems emerge from the ground as a cluster of leaves protecting a fistful of buds, which gradually unfold into cupped five-petal stars surrounding a yellow center.

Handsome thick, leathery leaves fill in after the blooms, developing into a tidy mound 18 to 24 inches tall and about 2 feet wide. Foliage is deep green, stays clean and attractive throughout the summer, and is sufficiently evergreen to look good well into winter. In my garden, the leaves are eventually knocked down by the snow. They prefer shade to partial sun, grow well in nearly any soil and, as an added bonus, deer seldom bother them.

Lenten roses, or hellebores, are durable, long-lived perennials, but until recent years they were hard to find. Options were limited to the true species Helleborus orientalis and the earlier blooming Helleborus niger (Christmas rose). Once located, plants were scrawny and expensive, since they were propagated by seed and took several years to reach blooming size. Unless you found a blooming plant, flower color would be a grab bag, white to dusky rose, maroon or chartreuse-green. Blooms typically nodded downward so the garden view was always in profile.

Over time, improved propagation methods and hybridizing have changed the game. Crosses between the two primary species, as well as a few outliers resulted in much greater selection, with an abundance of varieties and a wide range of colors. It has become much easier to find blooming size plants in the garden center and prices have come down significantly.

In 2005, Helleborus xhybridus was selected by the Perennial Plant Association as Perennial Plant of the Year. To earn the award, a plant must be low-maintenance, adapted to grow well in most climates, look good throughout the season, and be easily propagated so plants are readily available. The Lenten rose finally reached mainstream status.

One of the significant improvements of the new hybrids is the flowers are better about facing outward and upward, displaying their exquisite detail. The color range remains in shades of pink, wine and white, but expands to include many more hues and patterns, enhanced by an amazing array of double-flowered forms. Some hybrids also have foliage highlighted with silver or burgundy stems or veins.

Seed propagated varieties such as the Royal Heritage Strain and Sunshine Selections offer a good range of colors, including some double flowers and blushed picotees.

Breeders have begun offering their work in series or collections, creating a brand for themselves but also helping gardeners looking to build on successes with similar plants. Winter Jewels offers over a dozen individual colors of reliably double blooms.

The Gold Collection (HGC) has two lines, one with stronger ties to the Christmas rose and an earlier bloom, and the other to the later Lenten rose. As a rule, the Lenten types will provide the best show in gardens. And most recently, Walters Gardens has developed two new series: Wedding Party with 13 double-flowered varieties, and Honeymoon with 11 single-flowered varieties.

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