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 transition.
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 round.
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.