Helleborus Foetidus: A Cute Little Stinker

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Helleborus foetidus is a flowering plant that will make a beautiful addition to your landscape. It can be grown in large containers, but does best in a dedicated, permanent outdoor garden bed. The dark green, palmate leaves with a bluish tint create a showy and striking contrast against its bell-shaped, greenish-white flowers.

This plant is popular among gardeners. Unlike most other perennial plants, it’s evergreen through the winter, And it can handle cold climates like a champ, making it a perfect pick for northern climates. Even better, once established it can be perfect in xeriscaping.

One of its common names isounds shocking. I mean, who wants something called stinking hellebore in their garden? The truth is that it’s for everyone! They don’t actually stink, despite their name. If crushed or bruised, their leaves have an earthy aroma. So don’t be deterred by its ignoble common name. You’ll love the ambiance your plant brings!

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Quick Care Guide

A striking cold-weather bloomer, stinking hellebore is a must-plant in your garden
A striking cold-weather bloomer, stinking hellebore is a must-plant in your garden. Source: FarOutFlora
Common Name(s): Stinking hellebore, dungwort, setterwort, and bear’s foot
Scientific NameHelleborus foetidus
Family:Ranunculaceae
Zone:5-9
Height & Spread:1-2′ tall and 12-18″ wide
LightPart to full shade
SoilRich in organic matter, alkaline, well-draining
Water:Low to medium water needs
Pests & Diseases:Aphids, snails, leaf spot and hellebore black death

All About Stinking Hellebore

The plant is known by multiple common names. While stinking hellebore is the best known, it’s also known as bear’s foot or setterwort. It’s native to Greece, Asia Minor, and the central and southern parts of Europe. In the wild, it generally grows in forests. This provides it with the shady environment it performs best in.

Helleborus foetidus produces narrow, glossy leaves on thick succulent stems. The leaves are deeply carved and may resemble the leaves of palms or ferns. Some have lightly toothed edges.

Its flowers open in late winter. The bloom time lasts until March, sometimes even April. Its flowers are a very pale green in color and have five petal-like sepals. They resemble little bells. While their color isn’t showy, it still stands out in the garden.

Care

The winter-blooming flowers are a nice change of pace from typical winter plants
The winter-blooming flowers are a nice change of pace from typical winter plants. Source: AnneTanne

Your bear’s foot plant is rather hardy, and it’s one of the first flowers you’ll see from winter into spring. But for best growth, here’s a list of the perfect conditions to keep your plant in!

Light & Temperature

Partial to full shade is best for your helleborus foetidus. These shade-lovers tend to suffer in full, direct sunlight.

They’re hardy against freezing conditions, even surviving temperatures of -10° F. If you live in snowy areas, this will often be one of the few plants you’ll see with winter vigor.

Its hardiness zone range is zones 5-9.

Water & Humidity

Once established, helleborus foetidus is drought-resistant. While it’s young, keep the soil damp but not soggy. Don’t go overboard, as the plant simply doesn’t need a ton of water. In the summer months when your soil dries out quickly, consider supplementing the water if needed.

Soil

Your soil should be humusy and organically rich. It should drain off excess moisture well. I prefer a loamy soil base for this plant, but slightly-sandy ones can work.

While it will tolerate neutral conditions, opt for slightly alkaline pH when possible. Amend highly acidic soils with horticultural lime if needed to increase the alkalinity.

Fertilizer

You don’t need fertilizer if your soil’s rich. If you do fertilize, opt for a slightly-calciferous fertilizer. Fertilize in the fall to prepare it for winter through spring flowering. Don’t fertilize from spring through summer.

Transplanting

Be careful when transplanting helleborus foetidus. This plant develops a very deep root system which greatly improves the plant’s winter hardiness and drought tolerance. However, it also makes them difficult to transplant.

If at all possible, only transplant very young plants which haven’t had time to develop those roots yet. Older plants should be placed in a permanent location. Replant at the same depth as it was in its pot.

Propagation

Helleborus foetidus often propagates itself through self-seeding in the garden. As blooming ends, this plant forms seeds in its flower heads. If you don’t want it to self-sow, cut off the heads before seeds mature in the late spring.

Divide the plant in late fall before it flowers or sprouts new leaves. Division is somewhat risky to the root system, so be careful. Remove the plant and all of its roots from the soil, then wash off the roots to expose them all. The roots will be interconnected by growth buds. Using a sharp, clean knife, sever between clusters of 3-4 buds to divide it up.

Pruning

Hellebore pruning is mostly cosmetic. In the late spring when flowers are fading, prune back the spent flower stems. If you want to prevent self-seeding, do so before the seeds mature and start to fall. By April, the seeds will usually have self-sown. Otherwise, use pruning shears to cut away any dead or diseased foliage as needed.

All parts of the plant can be poisonous. Wear work gloves while pruning.

Troubleshooting

Helleborus foetidus flowers and foliage
The flowers are pale against the darker helleborus foetidus foliage. Source: Hornbeam Arts

There are few problems you’ll encounter in your hellebore garden, but those which exist are ones to watch for. Here’s a short list.

Pests

Aphids are a constant issue in the garden, and your setterwort is no different in that regard. We’ve got a complete guide on destroying aphids for you!

Slugs and snails may also nibble on your plants. Use a good organic snail and slug bait to kill these off.

Diseases

Helleborus net necrosis virus, sometimes called hellebore black death, causes black streaks to appear on foliage. Plants will be stunted and deformed. There is no cure for this plant virus, and plants should be completely removed and destroyed.

Other than that, some black spot on leaves may occur, but is easily treated with a copper fungicide.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Do you cut back hellebores after flowering?

A: If you want to tidy up the plant, you certainly can! Refer to our pruning section above.

Q: Is helleborous foetidus poisonous?

A: Yes. The plant contains glycosides which can cause violent vomiting and sometimes delirium. Wear gloves while handling this plant.


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Kevin Espiritu
Founder

Lorin Nielsen
Lifetime Gardener

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