Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Lenten Rose

The history of the garden hellebores is a bit of a Cinderella story. I wonder how many of the current enthusiasts for these plants realize that they are nothing new in our gardens. Mable Cabot Sedgwick’s The Garden Month by Month, compiled early in the first decade of the twentieth century, mentions several species of Helleborus and even a named garden cultivar, ‘Frau Irene Heinemann’ of H. orientalis (what we today call H. × hybridus). Sedgwick lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, so her month by month sequences are of course a bit out of line with what we experience here. But this is a wonderful book, evidently carefully researched and wondrously detailed. Boston area gardens of a century ago must have been very well stocked indeed!

And by “our gardens” I don’t simply mean our eastern North American gardens, I mean more specifically our greater Washington, D.C. gardens. Hellebores have been growing in local gardens since at least the time of the First World War. They were growing in the Washington, D.C. garden of David Griffiths back then.

You’ll have to search harder than I did to find much mention of them in eastern gardens during the next half century. Literate gardeners no doubt knew about them because these plants have long figured prominently in the British horticultural press. Mrs. Wilder celebrated them. But the gardening public seems to have been clueless.

How can that be? How can the plant which is now widely appreciated as the best late winter flowering perennial in our gardens have been all but totally overlooked? How can it be that we had this plant in our gardens a century ago and then, then what? Did we lose them? Did they not prove amenable to conditions a century ago? Was the prevailing taste in garden plants at such an appallingly low level to allow this plant to sink into obscurity?

Or was it simply a case of get-rich-quick America not being ready to embrace a plant which grows slowly, provides opportunity for only infrequent division, and takes as long to bloom from seed as a trillium or peony?

A generation ago, hardly anyone grew them. Today there is a dizzying array of garden forms available - readily available, if for a price.

The genus name is hel-LE-bo-rus. Those who pronounce the name Hell ‘il BORE us may know something I don’t – but I don’t want to visit that place to find out for myself.

And on this first day of Lent I have to ask: does anyone else still call them Lenten Roses?

The hellebore season is just getting started here: the one in the image above is one which always has bloomed well before the other garden hellebores growing here. Please don't leave a comment here on the order of "Jim, I sell hellebores I raise from seed, and I throw away the ones that look like that".
I'm happy to record that hellebores have been blooming in this garden for about forty years. For more views of hellebores here, see:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jim, the term 'Lenten Rose' is still commonly used in Scotland for these gems.... in fact the term is more common than the observance of Lent, these days!
Made the same point in the SRGC Forum where Hellebores are beginning to feature as the season progresses.