Better late than never: stinking hellebore

Helleborus foetidus ‘Sopron’

It would be a futile and ridiculous pursuit to try to pick any hellebore as my favourite. All have their charms, even though they may be subtle. But if I was pushed I would pick Helleborus foetidus every time. It may be because it was the first hellebore I ever saw and it was growing in the wild. This is a European hellebore but manages to encroach on the British Isles, though I don’t think it grows wild in Ireland. I found it growing on the North Downs in Surrey, in deep, dry shade under yews and beech on thin soil over chalk. So now you already know how tough it is. It is a great plant under trees. I don’t yet have dry soil under trees but it is not essential and light shade will suit it – just don’t plant in boggy soil.

It is not a great ‘garden centre plant’ because the flowers are produced on tall stems – plants fall over on the bench. And the small flowers can’t compete with bright pink, modern kinds. But it is a wonderful garden plant.

It belongs to that group of ‘stemmed’ (caulescent) hellebores with biennial stems. They start to grow in spring and are leafy all summer and autumn. In winter the shoot tips erupt into a mass of leafy bracts and flowers. Then the stem sets seeds and die, to be replaced with new stems. So, like the more popular and sun-loving H. argutifolius, in late spring you need to cut off the flowered stems to make room for the new growth. The only problem I have ever had is that, like the biennial-stemmed euphorbias, the ageing flowers get smothered in aphids. It is curious that both plants are poisonous (to us) but aphids adore them. If you don’t like spraying chemicals you can use this to your advantage because ladybirds soon move in and will them, hopefully, hop onto your roses. The flowers are also loved by bees which visit either for nectar or the profuse pollen.

Maybe the name ‘stinking hellebore’ puts some people off, but that would be just foolish because the plant emits no smell unless you sit on it. The combination of delicately fingered, intense green leaves and the (‘Granny Smith’) apple-green flowers and bracts is beautiful. There are variations on this and the best known is the ‘Wester Flisk Group’ which has beetroot staining in the leaves and flowers. ‘Gold Bullion’ is a seed-raised plant with golden foliage. I have grown both in the past and, while they are nice, in the same way that you can’t beat baked beans on buttered toast sometimes, I don’t need fancy notions when it comes to this plant.

It has been a late addition to this garden but arrived this week with an order of plants. I was not expecting such large plants and certainly not with huge stems of open blooms! So no kudos to me for producing these flowers – they are straight out of the box! The fact that they are not yet planted explains the unusual angle – looking up into the blooms.

Helleborus foetidus ‘Bowles’ Variety’

There are lots of varieties listed here and there and I can’t give advice on the merits of each. Some are reputed to be fragrant but I can’t say I have ever noticed perfume from any that I have ever sniffed. So my choice was erratic. I had to have ‘Bowles’ Variety’ for sentimental reasons and ‘Sopron’ for no particular reason. And ‘Ruth’ (a much smaller plant on delivery) which was named by hellebore expert Will McLewin, may have the distinctive maroon rim to the sepals. The other two have a brownish smudge inside the blooms.

Usually the plants reach about 60cm high in bloom and plants form dense clumps rather wider but they are more straggly in dense shade.

When it stops raining all three will be given pride of place in the garden, at least one near a red-stemmed cornus, a combination that makes me happy


2 Comments on “Better late than never: stinking hellebore”

  1. Paddy Tobin
    March 12, 2023 at 10:19 am #

    We have a pinch of the ordinary species H. foetidus which have grown away in a quiet corner for a long time. Generally unnoticed.

    • thebikinggardener
      March 13, 2023 at 8:30 am #

      It is something of a background plant I guess, happily doing its stuff

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