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.
- Leaves: 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”.
- Flowers: The cupped flowers are a subtle yellow-green, usually with purple margins, and are surrounded by a pale green bract.
Stinking Hellebore, Bear's Foot Hellebore
Stinking hellebore do well in USDA hardiness zones 5 - 8, although you could push these limits a bit, in ideal conditions.
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.
Stinking hellebores are clumping plants that reach a mature size of about 1 - 3 ft. wide and 1 - 3 ft. 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 flowers 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.
Stinking Hellebore Growing Tips
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.
Starting 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.
Planting: Stinking hellebore are 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.
Caring for Stinking Hellebore
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.
Maintenance: 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.
Pests and Problems of Stinking Hellebore
Problems tend to be few and are generally the result of the plants being in cool, shady areas. Be sure to site the plants where they will get good air circulation.
- Insects: Slugs and snails will be stinking hellebores biggest foes, although aphids can also infest plants.
- Diseases: In extremely wet conditions you can 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.
What doesn’t go with green? Stinking hellebores are not just one of the earliest bloomers, they are evergreen and start to perk up with the slightest warm breeze. Their green is bright enough to stand out in a shady spot and their lacy leaves make excellent foils for the bolder leaves of Hosta and Brunnera.
Honestly, there is no shade garden plant they aren’t good companions for, from ferns to primroses. They make the most imposing statement when planted in a large drift, which is relatively easy to achieve, as they spread quickly.
Suggested Varieties of Stinking Hellebores
I have never seen a named variety of stinking hellebore.