The Forgotten Hellebore

No, I’m not referring to the legendary Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger. I am suggesting that this lovely winter bloomer, Helleborus foetidus (pictured above), should be more widely grown. Unfortunately its specific name is Latin for “foul smelling”, and thus is commonly called Stinking Hellebore. Take note, in case you are already prejudiced, that I have never detected a smell, foul or otherwise.

What Helleborus foetidus does offer are lovely clusters of celadon green  bells sometimes as early as late fall or early winter. The flowers begin forming in November, and emerge on caulescent stems above dissected dark green foliage. Unlike the familiar Lenten Rose hybrids (Helleborus orientalis), these babies bloom on past season’s growth. A mild start to winter will encourage H. foetidus to flower away on the shortest days. If more frigid temperatures take hold, no harm is done; the blooming picks up again at winter’s end. Once the flowers set seed, the branched stems die and then need to be cut back. This encourages a surge of fresh new foliar growth.

You may ask why this plant is often overlooked. Blame its common name, perhaps, but it is not a patented and cloned variety; you need to grow this species hellebore from seed.  It is perfectly hardy in zones 5-9, is easy to grow in either sun or shade in a well-drained soil, and in our garden it self sows, always in the right spot. I don’t consider this tendency to be a nuisance, but a good thing. Helleborus foetidus is not extremely long lived, and its seedlings insure future plants.

So here we have a perennial that blooms when little else does, grows in sun or shade, is deer resistant, with flowers that are visited by the earliest foraging bees.  Is it time to add this forgotten Hellebore to your winter garden?


16 thoughts on “The Forgotten Hellebore”

  1. Yes, definitely, Helleborus foetidus should be added to our winter gardens! Great article, thank you for posting! That soft pale green color of the flowers really pops against the deep green foliage, and is lovely for months. I would add that the foliage is much more finely cut than Lenten and Christmas Rose hellebores, and adds a nice textural contrast to their bolder leaves. In my zone 7B garden (Raleigh, NC), some of my H. foetidus plants are already blooming.

  2. Another great attribute of Helleborus foetidus is that it will grow under black walnuts!

  3. Marily, thanks for sharing your experience with Helleborus foetidus. Your milder winter climate makes me a little envious. Here in zone 6b, we have more extreme winter spells, but what I love about foetidus is that it braves our climate admirably, and when I see it in the garden in December, I am reminded of the winter gardens of the Pacific Northwest, Maritime Northern Europe, or in your case, the gardens in North Carolina.

  4. Do you keep a Wish List? I would love one of these and have never found them for sale- now I know why.

  5. One of my favorites. A delight in winter and early spring, with a constitution of iron. I’ve had them frozen in solid ice, only to continue flowering as soon as the ice melts. And they self-seed quite easily.

  6. These do seed around, politely, not invasively. Mine do not bloom until early spring (zone 7) but as with other cold-weather bloomers the flowers last a long time. One year I had a memorable combination of H. foetidus, a couple pink tulips and blue grape hyacinths, with the help of my critter-assistants in the garden. A squirrel had moved the tulips to the hellebore bed, where they were missed by the deer. The grape hyacinths seeded themselves, or maybe my assistants planted those too. Either way , it was good enough to do again on purpose!

  7. I am growing this but have been trying to figure out what to cut and when. So this was very helpful. Now I understand what to look for. My older one was planted in 2017 and has not obviously set seed. The original plant is still in place and is as big as a small shrub. A real stunner.

  8. A favorite of mine, underused and seldom available in nurseries. But once you have it going, it’s a real workhorse… in our sandy soil it self-sows prolifically and the second year seedlings can be moved and used as a low edger/filler almost anywhere… perfect in high shade under trees or almost full sun.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.