How to Grow Stinking Hellebore

Stinking hellebore plant with light green cupped flowers in cluster closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Although the flowers are somewhat similar to other hellebores, Helleborus foetidus is very individual, from its filagree leaves to its green blooms, to the unpleasant scent of its leaves when they are crushed or bruised. Don’t let that last bit stop you from growing these amazing plants. They are extremely hardy and adaptable, stay evergreen most of the year, and bloom earlier than just about any other perennial flower, often lifting their flower clusters despite the snow.

Stinking hellebores can be planted at any time of year, and they are fast-growing, clumping plants that reach a mature size of about 1 - to 3-feet wide and tall. They will slowly spread but do not become a nuisance.

Stinking hellebores bloom in very early spring, sometimes even in late winter. The leaves stay evergreen, but do become a bit tattered at the end of winter and can be cut back to encourage new foliage growth.

The flower stalks start emerging early in the season. Initially, the buds look like they are too heavy for the plants and droop toward the ground. But as they open, they will be held high above the foliage, however, they still face downward, as is typical of hellebores.

Botanical Name  Helleborus foetidus
Common Name Stinking hellbore, dungwort, setterwort, bear's foot
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size 1-2 ft. tall, 12-18 in. wide
Sun Exposure Part shade
Soil Type Rich, well-draining
Soil pH Alkaline, neutral
Bloom Time Winter, spring
Flower Color Green, yellow
Hardiness Zones 6-9 (USDA)
Native Area Central and southern Europe, Greece, Asia
Toxicity Toxic to humans and animals

Stinking Hellebore Care

Stinking hellebore has deep green and deeply-cut leaves that spill outward, giving the plants an almost weeping look about them. The splayed nature of the cut leaves gives them their common name of “bear’s foot.” The unpleasant odor of the crushed leaves will explain their other common name, “stinking hellebore.”

Their cupped flowers are a subtle yellow-green, usually with purple margins, and are surrounded by a pale green bract.

These are truly low-maintenance plants. You can clean up any ragged leaves, in the spring and prune back the spent flower stalks. If you want the plants to self-sow, don’t remove the flowers until they have released their seeds.

Light

These are plants for a shady garden: Partial shade is where they will flourish. The leaves will scorch in full sun during the summer, but they can handle the early spring sun that makes its way under trees that have not yet leafed out.

Soil

Being typical shade garden plants, stinking hellebores like a cool, moist, well-draining soil, rich in organic matter. Think of a forest floor. They do best in a soil pH that is slightly acidic to neutral (6.5-7.5) but are adaptable.

Water

Once established, stinking hellebores will only need supplemental water during very dry conditions. Even then, they may struggle, but they will rally when conditions improve.

Temperature and Humidity

Stinking hellebore does well in USDA hardiness zones 6-9, although you could push these limits a bit, in ideal conditions.

Fertilizer

They shouldn’t need additional fertilizer if you provide them with rich soil and amend it annually with more compost or composted manure.



Pruning

Stinking hellebores don't need much in the way of pruning. In the spring, cut back dead flower stalks and dead leaves.

Propagating Stinking Hellebore

Stinking hellebore is very easy to lift and divide and re-establish with ease. The trick to re-establishing seedlings and divisions is to not let them dry out. Keep them moist while in transit and water them in well. Allow the soil to dry slightly after that, but do not allow the plants to remain in dry soil for long until you see signs of new growth.

How to Grow Stinking Hellebore From Seed

It’s very easy to collect seed as the seed pods dry, however, it’s even easier to allow them to seed themselves and then dig and move the volunteer plants the next season. The seed doesn’t remain viable for long; you should sow them as soon as possible.

Common Pests/Diseases

Slugs and snails will be stinking hellebore's biggest foes, although aphids can also infest plants. You can get rid of slugs and snails by place little dishes of beer in your garden. Aphids need insecticidal soap to get rid of them.

In extremely wet conditions, your stinking hellebore may expect some fungal problems, but these are usually not major and will go away when conditions dry out. Be on the lookout for leaf spot and black rot.

Stinking hellebore plant with light green cupped flowers clustered together between leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Stinking hellebore plant with light green cupped flowers with red tipped ends and buds clustered together

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Stinking hellebore plant with light green and red tipped cupped flowers closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova