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?