Stinking hellebore – info, planting, care and tips

Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)
Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

Stinking hellebore enchants early in the year, whose pretty green-yellow flowers are a popular source of food for bees.

Profile of stinking hellebore:

Scientific name: Helleborus foetidus

Plant family: buttercup family (Ranunculaceae)

Other names: dungwort, setterwort, bear’s foot

Sowing time: spring

Planting time: autumn

Flowering period: January to May

Location: sunny to partially shady

Soil quality: gravelly to loamy, calcipholous, moderately nutritious, humus rich

These information are for temperate climate!

Use in: flowerbeds, single planting, group planting, underplanting, borders, flower garden, natural garden, forest garden, park, cemetery

Winter hardiness: hardy, USDA Plant Hardiness Zones: 5 (-26 °C / -15 °F)

Bee and insect friendly: Yes

Plant characteristics and classification of stinking hellebore

Plant order, origin and occurrence of stinking hellebore

The stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) belongs like the other 18 types of the type Helleborus to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). Its natural range extends from Great Britain via Switzerland to Spain and Portugal in the south. In its native habitat it grows preferentially in mixed forests and on rocky slopes with dry and calcareous soils.

Characteristics of stinking hellebore


The stinking hellebore is a half woody, short-lived perennial with an upright growth, which can grow between 40 and 60 centimeters (16 to 24 in) high. It belongs to the stem-forming Helleborus species and therefore rarely grows older than three to four years. Helleborus foetidus, like its siblings, is poisonous in all parts of the plant.


With its evergreen, palm-like foliage, the stinking hellebore is a beautiful eye-catcher in the winterly garden as well. The dark green, glossy leaves can grow up to 25 centimeters (10 in) long and consist of 11 to 12 individual elliptical segments. The edges of the leaves can be whole-edged or slightly toothed. The leaves can sometimes have an unpleasant smell when rubbed between the fingers. In addition to the normal leaves, Helleborus foetidus also carries conspicuous bracts at the stem ends, which are green-yellow in color like the flowers.


Early in the year, around January, the stinking hellebore opens its flowers, which are rather unusual for a Helleborus species, and presents them until May. While Christmas roses and lenten roses bloom in all imaginable colors between white and violet, the flowers of Helleborus foetidus are strikingly yellow-green. Each plant can bear up to a hundred bell-shaped individual flowers, which are no larger than 3 centimeters (1.2 in) and stand on long flower stems above the foliage. The flowers often also have fine red edges. In contrast to the leaves, which can smell unpleasant, the flowers exude a pleasant, if only very delicate, scent.


After flowering and successful pollination by bees, the stinking hellebore forms follicle fruits in which the oval seeds are arranged in two rows. When the seeds are ripe, they fall to the ground and are spread by ants.

Stinking hellebore – cultivation and care


The stinking hellebore prefers a place in sunny to partially shady conditions, but can also cope with a more shady location, provided the soil is dry enough there. A planting place in light shade is optimal.


The soil should be dry to fresh and well-drained. As in its natural habitats, Helleborus foetidus can also cope with poor soil in the garden, whose pH-value is alkaline at best.

Planting stinking hellebore

The best planting time for Helleborus foetidus is autumn. The native wild shrub is best shown to advantage when planted singly or in small groups of no more than ten plants. Once planted, you should not transplant the stinking hellebore again, it is sensitive to this.


It is not necessary to water the stinking hellebore too often. Only on persistent drought in summer you should give water once a while.


In spring the plant is happy to receive fertilizer or compost.


The stinking hellebore thrives best if it is allowed to grow undisturbed. Since the perennial plant propagates in optimal locations by self-seeding, it is recommended to remove the seeds before the seeds ripen – unless it is desired that Helleborus foetidus should spread in the garden by self-seeding.


There is no need for regularly dividing the stinking hellebore. It is short-lived anyway and even dividing it would not prolong its life significantly. In addition, the stem-forming Helleborus species are generally difficult to divide, as they usually have only one basic shoot.


Stinking hellebore can only be propagated by sowing. For this purpose the seeds are first dried and then sown in small pots. However, this method of propagation can take up to four years before the plant’s offspring bears flowers for the first time. If you don’t want to wait that long, it’s best to buy a young plant that has been grown in the nursery. The good thing about it is that it propagates on humus rich, not too dry soils by self-seeding.

Diseases and pests

Like all Helleborus species, Helleborus foetidus is susceptible to black spot disease. The fungal disease can be recognized by the brown to black spots that form on the leaves from spring onwards.


The stinking hellebore is hardy, but extreme frosts can still affect it. To avoid damage, the plants should be covered with brushwood or leaves if there is a risk of severe frost. If the stinking hellebore stands among other plants, the fallen leaves should not be disposed of under any circumstances, but left as winter protection.

Use in the garden

With its greenish-yellow flowers, stinking hellebore is at first glance far less conspicuous than the lenten roses and Christmas Roses. But with its early flowering time and evergreen foliage it sets pretty accents in the winter garden. It is suitable for planting in sunny perennial beds as well as on the edge of a wood. Beautiful planting partners are other early flowering perennials and flowers such as winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), thimbleweed (Anemone nemorosa) or snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), for which the stinking hellebore provides a peaceful background.


In addition to the pure species, some varieties of the stinking hellebore are also available in the trade – but unfortunately often only from foreign nurseries that specialize in Helleborus. The name ‘Green Giant’ says it all: with a height of 1.2 meters (4 ft), it grows considerably taller than the species. ‘Piccadilly’, and its black-green foliage forms a beautiful contrast to the greenish flowers. Golden yellow foliage on the other hand shows ‘Golden Bullion’, which is unfortunately considered to be quite susceptible to black spot disease. ‘Miss Jekyll’ has fragrant flowers, intensity varying with the time of day; ‘Wester Flisk Group’ has red-tinted leaves and stems and gray-green flowers; the ‘Sierra Nevada Group’ is dwarf, reaching 30 cm (12 in).

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