University City

Lenten roses bring carnival to yard

The Lenten roses are already partying hard in our yard, even though it's still three weeks until Mardi Gras.

This year, the festival falls on Tuesday, Feb. 21, one day before Lent's official beginning on Ash Wednesday puts the kibosh on the carnival season.

In spite of my bias in favor of garden plants you can eat, I'm forced to grant special dispensation to Lenten roses. Not only do they brighten the somnambulant gray cusp between winter and spring in the Piedmont, but their appealing evergreen foliage looks good the rest of the year, too, keeping natural areas looking green and hiding garden sins.

Sure, the daffodils look swell this month, and the crocuses are sweet, but they are gone before May Day. Lenten roses just keep on keeping on.

Lenten roses are not native plants to North Carolina, although they have some traditional Southern tendencies.

For one thing, they are true "steel magnolias," quietly lovely but tough as nails. And, like Confederate rose (actually a variety of hibiscus) and rose campion (a species of Lychnis prized by Thomas Jefferson), Lenten rose is yet another social climbing pretender that's not an actual rose at all.

It's Helleborus orientalis, a member of the ranunculus family originating in Europe and the Levant.

Many Lenten roses have flowers that look vaguely like a wild rose but larger, in a petticoat spectrum of pastels from white to pink to purple. Sometimes the color is pure; other times two or more shades are splashed together.

A small plant may bear but a single bloom, but larger ones hold up grand living bouquets. They are just the tonic you need on a gray February day.

Southern Living magazine's "Grumpy Gardener" says authorities used to sum up the secret to growing Lenten roses in the South in one word: Lime.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust, one of my most trusted sources of gardening information, agrees, saying the plant prefers alkaline soil. But Grumpy isn't so sure anymore. He hasn't found lime all that necessary, based on his experience. That conclusion is supported by the fact that the Lenten roses at Elizabeth Lawrence's garden in Myers Park have been growing like crazy for many decades, and nobody limes them.

I agree with Grumpy on this. We have Lenten roses everywhere in our natural, unlimed yard in Autumnwood, just up Toby Creek from UNC Charlotte. We mulch everywhere, with occasional topdressings of compost in key viewscapes, so our soil is rich in organic matter.

If we make sure they don't dry out too long - natural rainfall is usually all they need - Lenten roses may well be the happiest plants in our yard.

"People often make the mistake of thinking the conditions where a plant is native are the only ones under which it will grow," Grumpy rightly reminds us. Just look at Michael Pollan's "The Botany of Desire," where we learn how adaptable the apple has been in North America. Clearly, Lenten rose feels right at home in the N.C. Piedmont.

In Charlotte, it's easy to find Lenten roses for planting. Wing Haven, which manages the Elizabeth Lawrence Garden, is an obvious first place to look during its spring or fall plant sale. Another good bet is the UNC Charlotte plant sale, also held spring and fall.

Once you buy one plant, it will reproduce, with babies popping up around the base of the parent plant. We've filled our yard with Lenten roses just that way. They are easy to transplant: Duke Power just dug up part of our yard, and the first things we put in behind them were Lenten roses.

Lenten rose has some cousins that also make great choices for University City landscapes. My favorite is setterwort ( Helleborus foetidus). It is also evergreen but with a thinner leaf, and a very cool Chihuly flower in sci-fi colors (Chihuly does vibrant glass art, including flowers.)

As they say in New Orleans around Mardi Gras time, "Laisser les bon temps rouler!" Loosely translated, I think that means "Plant Lenten roses so you, too, can have a carnival in your yard."