Helleborus orientalis/Helleborus x hybridus

One of the first flashes of color in Mizzou Botanic Garden spring flowerbeds is the hellebore, sometimes poking its cupped, five-petaled blooms up through the snow. What passes for petals on hellebores are actually sepals, which remain on the plant, sometimes for months. The plants’ other superpowers are that they flourish in the shade and deer do not eat them.


Helleborus is a plant family of about 20 species, native to Europe and Asia, with lots of subspecies. Commonly called Lenten rose, H. orientalis blooms in a variety of colors and forms and is very hardy, making it a frequent choice for cross breeding. Cultivars with a Lenten rose parent are collectively referred to as H. x hybridus. Offspring bloom in variations of white, yellow, green, pink, mauve and purple. There are single and double blooming cultivars in abundance, plus some with freckled faces. Blooms usually grow in clusters of one to four flowers on a thick stem rising above the foliage.


Plants have attractive, large, palmate foliage that grows in an attractive mound and leaves sometimes remain green through the winter


Plant experts could come to no consensus on how to distinguish one hellebore species from another until 1989, when British botanist Brian Mathew broke it down in a monograph that remains the definitive source for classification of the genus. That doesn’t mean all hellebore-ians agree with Mathew, nor that fine tuning will not occur.


Hellebores reseed freely. Small plants often can be found beneath the plants’ skirts of leaves. They also hybridize freely so you can’t count on a seedling’s bloom color if two or more varieties are grown together.


Helleborus comes from Greek. Bora means “food” and helein translates to “injures/destroys” in reference to the toxicity of all parts of the plant, which are poisonous to humans.


Hellebores grow in a number of Mizzou Botanic Garden flowerbeds. Those pictured here were photographed in beds on the Francis Quad in early March.


Story and photos by Jan Wiese-Fales