One of the earliest-flowering perennials, Helleborus orientalis is called the Lenten rose because it usually blooms during Lent. The flowers pictured here were grown by Elfi Rahr in her Bellevue, Washington, garden. For 25 years, Rahr has been cross-pollinating her favorite plants and collecting seeds of hybrid specimens that bear the largest, most vividly colored blossoms.
This evergreen perennial is hardy in all Sunset climate zones, forming 12- to 18-inch-tall clumps of glossy dark green leaves. The blossoms, about 2 inches wide, come in shades of rose, pink, purple, green, yellow, and white.
Around the first of the year, many gardeners cut the leaves off at ground level so that the flowers will be easier to see. Once the flowers have been pollinated, they fade to green, then handsome seed pods form and new bright green leaves emerge.
Many nurseries offer blooming plants for sale this month. A good source for mail-order plants is Gossler Farms Nursery (1200 Weaver Rd., Springfield, OR 97478; 541/746-3922); the catalog costs $2.
Hellebores do best in rich soil with good drainage. They flourish in the shade of high-branched trees or on the north or east side of buildings. In the Northwest's coastal climates, they can take full sun if the soil is constantly moist.