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Ask a Master Gardener: Add some green to a dreary winter

by Peter Sutter | December 18, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

What a cold, dreary time we have had already this winter. I think I can handle the cold better if the sun is shining -- of course in Mid-Missouri, you never know, we could be basking in the sun in our short sleeves by Christmas.

This early start on winter makes me wish I have more evergreen plants around to brighten things up. Since I have already started getting seed catalogs in the mail, I thought I would look to see what is available, and I came across an interesting little shade plant called Lenten rose. Some of you may be familiar with this plant, but being mainly a vegetable grower, it was news to me and sounded like something I would like to try. Here is what I found out:

Lenten rose flowers are prized for their early-blooms that bring color into the early spring landscape after a long winter of browns, grays and whites. In addition to the blooms, the plant has leathery evergreen foliage that contributes good color throughout the growing season. I did find some saying the leaves tend to look a little tattered by the time spring arrives, but by this time, new leaves are well on their way.

The Lenten rose comes in a variety of colors including purple, red, yellow, green, blue, lavender and pink. The flowers can be quite large, several inches in diameter, and hang downward in clusters from thick stems that rise above the foliage. The color is most vibrant when the flowers first emerge in spring then fades somewhat. A purple flower, for example, will be quite vivid in early spring then fade to a lighter color. In addition to the color variations, there may be variations in markings, such as areas of a different color, spotting or veining.

What is called the flower on a Lenten rose is the sepals. A flower sepal is similar to a petal but longer-lasting. It is said the actual flower on the Lenten rose is not all that impressive, but they are surrounded by sepals that are quite colorful, especially when they first appear. The sepals first emerge in early spring and last right through the summer. Flowering initially occurs near ground-level, below last year's leaves.

It is best to buy a well-established plant because these plants seem to take some time to get started. Even if you do buy one that's large and already established, you will still have to give it a couple of years before it begins to flower. Patience is the gardener's best attribute and most often greatly rewarded. These perennials reach 18-24 inches in height, with a similar spread.

Plant Lenten rose in a spot that receives partial or full shade. Shade helps preserve the vibrant color of both the sepals and the foliage. It is best planted in an area that will be sheltered from cold winter winds.

Lenten rose is actually easy to grow, requiring little care. Watering the plant during dry periods in the spring and summer and mulching to conserve the moisture and keep weeds down should be all that's needed.

There are very few problems with Lenten rose. Leaf spot and crown rot are occasional problems, but the plants are immune to most pests, including deer and rabbits. Be warned that all parts of Lenten rose are toxic, so this is not edible landscape. I hope next year you and I will have a little more green to look at during the winter.

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]

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