THE STINKING HELLEBORE
My mother, a woman for whom
good taste meant a great deal, would not have approved
of Sarah, our gray half-grown kitten. Sarah, for whom
happiness and flatulence seem inextricably linked, is
not always fit for polite company. Fortunately she loves
to go out into the garden.
Mother would also have looked askance
at another denizen of my beds, the stinking hellebore
(Helleborus foetidus). Its name alone is decidedly unattractive,
reminiscent of some of Edward Gorey’s more malevolent-sounding
titles. Crushing the leaves produces an unpleasant odor
that does not add to the plant’s allure. On top of all
that, it is poisonous.
Much of the garden literature damns
this useful member of the ultra-chic hellebore family
with faint praise, stressing its unappealing nicknames
such as “stinkwort” and “dungwort”. Even skunk cabbage
gets better press. The truth is, if you can keep from
mangling the leaves, Helleborus foetidus is an extremely
desirable plant. The recent spate of balmy weather has
convinced the ones in my garden to set buds, something
that would normally happen during a January or early
February thaw. If my observations are correct they should
bloom next week. The prospect is delightful at a time
when the garden is going through a very odd seasonal
The mature Helleborus foetidus in
my front bed is a relatively bushy plant, and stands
about two-feet tall. It has palmate leaves that look
like dark green hands with eight spidery green fingers
apiece. The fingers themselves have serrated edges.
As with some other hellebore species, the flowers are
chartreuse or pale lime green and face downward. They
last for up to six weeks, and the leaves are green year
My hellebore grows adjacent to several
holly bushes in acid soil and fairly dry light shade,
which makes it worth its weight in gold. It was slow
to establish itself when I installed it two years ago,
and this is its first flush of bloom. Fortunately the
literature reports that Helleborus foetidus is an extremely
willing self-seeder. Hellebores of all kinds are so
helpful in shady garden settings that I would welcome
some more little stinkers into my beds.
Stinking hellebore, a European native,
seems to be more popular in the rest of the world than
it is here. In England you can buy seeds for 12 or 13
cultivars, including at least two with variegated leaves:
‘Chedlow Variegated’ and ‘Gold Leaf’. Here in the United
States, you can buy Helleborus foetidus from garden
centers run by discerning individuals and from some
mail-order nurseries. Heronswood Nurseries offers the
‘Chedglow’ cultivar, with leaves that the catalog describes
as being “bright yellow”. The plant would make a wonderful
accent in a shady corner, even when it is not in bloom.
Heronswood also offers Helleborus foetidus forma ‘Wester
Flisk Group’. Like the popular Helleborus orientalis
hybrids, these seed-grown plants vary widely in coloration.
Many feature green flowers with a rosy tint, in addition
to reddish stems.
Hellebores are members of the Ranunculaceae
or buttercup family, and if you look very closely at
the five-petaled flowers of the stinking hellebore or
any hellebore species, you will see the similarity to
the common buttercup. For those gardeners in areas where
deer are a problem, hellebores, including the odoriferous
kind, are heaven sent. Deer and other varmints will
not eat the plants, and they flourish with little care.
People are rightfully wary about poisonous
plants, but hellebore is only toxic if large quantities
of it are eaten. Supposedly, chewing the leaves causes
a burning sensation in the mouth, so it would seem highly
unlikely that anyone would consume enough to do harm.
I welcome Sarah the kitten into the
garden despite her predisposition to smelliness. Stinking
hellebore gets a similar warm reception. It looks especially
good growing at the feet of evergreen shrubs such as
rhododendrons and laurels, and provides interest before
even the earliest of the late winter/early spring bulbs.
At a time when garden writers are using up quantities
of ink in praise of skunk cabbage, I can’t imagine why
more people haven’t indulged in Helleborus foetidus.