Lenten-Rose or Hellebore


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Lenten-Rose or Hellebore

8 May 2013  |  Posted by Eric  |  Plant of the Week

Lenten-Rose in full bloom.

Liquid Sunshine

April 3, 2013



Helleborus species


            The plant kingdom has a dozen (one system has thirteen) separate ‘divisions’ within it. These dozen range from the small plants like algae to a small division like the one that has but a single genus and species within it (Ginkgophyta and Ginkgo biloba) to the largest living plants in Pinophyta (the Redwood tree) to the largest division, Magnoliaphyta, which includes all the flowering plants, from Elm trees to Carrots, over 250,000 species strong.   All of the division names end in ‘-phyta.’


            The next step in the plant kingdom diagram is the ‘class’ which further differentiates between members of the division. For instance in flowering plants, you choose between the monocotyledons and the dicotyledons.  Cotyledons are the first leaves to emerge from a seed. Those plants that send a single leaf up are called monocots, and the plants that send two tender leaves up are called dicots.  Think grass plants for the first one and a bean plant for the second.  This is an example of a sort of arbitrary but effective observation of plant morphology used  to delineate classification.   Here the endings are a bit more varied, but most end in ‘-ida.’


            After ‘class’ is the ‘order.’ Now the diagram starts to look like an old fashioned pyramid, but this has nothing to do with Ponzi or Madoff.  The number of classes explodes from several dozen to over a hundred different orders.  For example we find an order that lumps all the bean-like plants together, from fava to locust tree. Another order encloses the huge Rose family and their distant cousins.  The order names almost invariably end in



            From ‘order’ we move to ‘family,’ which is based on the similarities in flower structures.  The types and organization of the flower parts are the key traits by which we determine plant family orientation.  I should add that Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) was the first person to systematically classify plants, animals and minerals. He is considered the father of binomial nomenclature (the system we use that provides a genus name and a species name for animals and plants). His observations for placing species within families were based on the flower parts and structure system that I mention.  Within the last two decades, as we have begun to understand the genomic map of plants and animals, we have discovered plant relationships that contradict the observations made by Linnaeus. But these are very few and his plant classification still holds sway as the definitive work of its kind. The ending of almost all plant families reflects the Latin that Linnaeus and other learned men of his time used, and you will read ‘…aceae’ a lot when reading through plant family names. Rosaceae is a good example. Compositae is an example where the ending of the root word can accommodate the ‘…ae’ without the addition of the ‘…ac…’


            From ‘family,’ the next grouping is genus.   This is an even larger grouping of plant taxa which more accurately describes the plant. There are literally tens of thousands of genera (the plural of ‘genus’) in the plant kingdom.  Names for the genera also reflect Latin roots, as well as Greek. There are some people’s names and in some very few cases the local name of the plant comes through.


            We finally come to the species, the putative bottom of the pyramid.  The operative point with this grouping is that sexual propagation occurs only within these taxa for the most part. In other words seeds are produced only within members of the same species.  An example of an exception to this rule would be the ability of some genera like Roses to mix and match between species. There have even been inter-generic crosses (Cupressocyparis, the Leyland Cypress for example as well as many Orchid family members) but without monkeying around with the chromosomes, the species is the largest set of partners.  The species names are usually descriptive, often in Latin, sometimes in Greek. ‘Rubrum’ is Latin for ‘red,’ as in Acer rubrum, or Red Maple. Many people’s names are immortalized in the species names, as often genera were cosmopolitan in nativity while species were localized. Hence plant explorers would come back with plants from the length of their travels only to find the botanists back in Europe exclaim, “Sorry but this is part of the genus that has already been named, but we can name the species after your dog if you like.” Or something like that.


            But there are other divisions below the species that we must talk about with plants.  In the same way that among humans there are varieties of morphological heterogeneity, yet propagation is still possible, so too is it possible within species of plants. A ‘variety’ is a naturally occurring population of a species that bears some difference to the larger species, yet seed production between the two is possible.  There are also groupings called ‘sub-species,’ which means a sub-division of a species that is usually geographically isolated.


            Hybridization is a process where different varieties and in some cases different species are subjected by humans to a cross-fertilization process that ends up with a plant that is often quite different from either parent.  Many Apples, Roses, almost all our vegetables and much of our grain are hybrids dating back into dusty antiquity. It is thought that the refuse piles of hunter-gatherers were the caldrons out of which the first crosses of plants were discovered. When writing out a hybrid name, the convention has it that the ‘male’ parent comes first (harrumph!) then an ‘x,’ with the female parent last. Often plants are just listed as ‘hybrid’ with the cultivar name afterwards without recognizing the parents. I can’t imagine how those poor parents feel, being forgotten like that.


            The word ‘cultivar’ is used to describe varieties that have been ‘cultivated’ or selected and propagated by our species.  The convention for handling all of this nomenclature when writing is to capitalize the genus but not the species. If there is a variety involved, one uses the abbreviation ‘var.’ after the species before identifying the name of the variety.  If one is describing a cultivar in writing, you use single quotes around the cultivated name. For example the Golden Thread-needled Japanese False-cypress is written as Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea.’ Many people use bold type and underline the proceedings but I say why draw attention to such an unwieldy name?


            Speaking of unwieldy, when using Latin names there are a number of folks who are complete sticklers for proper Latin pronunciation.  Others will insist on certain ways of saying the names of plants based on people’s names.  Forsythia is an example, which was named for William Forsyth (1737-1804), superintendent of the royal garden at Kensington Palace.  Of course his name would have been pronounced with a long ‘i.’ So we should, according to some, be calling the plant ‘ForSIGHTHia.’ When asked what to call the plant named for Caspar Wister (1761-1818), an American professor of botany, these pronunciation experts turn a goggle-eyed stare at you and wonder what planet you came from.


            The same is true with those Latin correctors.  Ask one what how they would say the Latin binomial for Pitch Pine using proper Latin pronunciation without blushing or cracking a smile. 


            So here is my rule for properly vocalizing Latin names: do it with style, with panache, with assurance and do it frequently.


            Hellebore, Lenten- or Christmas-Rose are common names for Helleborus species.  The official genus name comes from the classical Latin name for one of the species within the group.  They are members of the Buttercup family, Ranunculaceae.  As with many of this family, Hellebores can be poisonous, especially Stinking Hellebore, H. foetidus, which yields a powerful heart drug and veterinary medicine. There are about twenty-five species within the genus, most native to Asia Minor and Eastern and Central Europe.  H. niger is found in its native range in the Alps and Apennines.


            This is one perennial to plant if you want a lot of flowering bang for your gardening buck. When they are happy, and when the weather is right, they can bloom from late January right into June, which for a perennial is an extraordinary stretch.  A historic garden that I tended in Kentucky had a bank of them that re-seeded themselves into a low-maintenance, long-blooming semi-evergreen ground cover that was a wonder to behold.  There have been many crosses, hybrids and selections made within this genus, so there are a number of plants to choose from when considering flower color, size and shape, leaf characteristics, hardiness and bloom time.


            The flower color range of this group of plants runs from deep purple through mauve to pink, with white, light yellow, green and a reddish purple mixed in.  The flowers are one to two inches across, not fragrant but definitely showy.  They often appear above the foliage, or in cases where the leaves were not quite evergreen through the winter, as in ours here at Marsh Gardens, the flowers will appear before the new leaves.  The blooms tend to nod towards the ground, although some cultivars and selected specimens will hold their head up a bit better. A friend was describing just yesterday her mother’s attempts to get her to improve her posture, and I thought of the Hellebore’s and their shy demeanor.  A folk tale seems appropriate here:  A young shepherdess named Madelon was guarding her flock one cold winter’s night, when she was approached by a group of wise men and other shepherds on their way to bear witness and gifts to the new born Jesus. She could not join them, nor did she have gifts to send, so shed tears of bitter regret. A passing angel (boy, we could use a couple of these right now), upon hearing her sobbing, stopped to brush away the snow, to reveal a marvelous white flower tipped with pink, the Christmas-Rose, H. niger.


            Don’t be fooled by the common names into thinking that these are Roses, or in any way related to Roses.  This is illustrative of why we do not use common names when trying to be precise about plants. Common names, while often quite colorful and in many cases more descriptive of the plant than the Latin binomial, are often confusing and obfuscating in the extreme.  It would be like calling any male over fifty the Geezer, which while probably descriptive, does not narrow the field that much, changes from community to community and is a bit demeaning. 


            I would plant Hellebores in shade or partial shade, protected from winter winds, in a deep humus-rich soil that is either neutral or slightly acid. The roots of Hellebores run deep, so they should be planted in deep soil, and not disturbed.  They do not generally need to be fed or otherwise babied, and not many critters or diseases mess with them.


            There are many sources of Hellebores, including good local nurseries. I’d try to find one grown in a pot, with the flower color obvious. In other words, look for them now, when they are blooming. As I mentioned earlier, they are semi-evergreen, which means that in the right place, with the right winter exposure, the leaves can stay green all winter. If they do turn brown, remove them in spring, and new ones will take their place. This does not seem to harm the plant, although I’m sure having the leaves stay around and continuing to photosynthesize through the winter and early spring gives a plant an edge.


            They are, as mentioned earlier, great for evergreen or semi-evergreen ground cover for the shade. Their ultimate height is only a foot, sometimes fifteen to eighteen inches.


            Spring is still coming, March winds notwithstanding.

Your friend,











Lenten-Rose: Helleborus x hybrida

Kingdom:             Plantae

Division:             Magnoliaphyta

Class:             Magnoliopsida

Order:              Ranunculales

Family:             Ranunculaceae

Genus:             Helleborus

Species:            x hybrida



Hellebore niger in the shade of our greenhouse foundation has thrived. This picture from 2009 is a bit out of date, but still representative. I have seen some authorities insist on slightly basic soil and other suggest  it needs acid soil. How about split the difference?


Drones have more intelligence than this column, but we share the ability to fly ‘below the radar.’ Please keep this under your hat, because if Yale University or Marsh Botanical Garden really knew what was going on here, they’d shut us dow n quicker than a New York politician can exact a bribe.