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Stinking hellebore, look but don’t touch… or else!

Helleborus foetidus

Stinking hellebore has other poetic names: bear’s foot, dungwort, snake rose, and even madman’s grass.

Stinking hellebore key facts

Botanical nameHelleborus foetidus
Common name – stinking hellebore
Type – perennial grassy flower

Exposure – sun to part shade
Soil – chalky, rocky, clayish, loamy, cool or dry
Foliage: evergreen

Blooming: mid-winter→mid-spring  –  Height: 1-3 ft (30-80 cm)  –  Toxicity: high

This plant is pretty common in Europe. Indeed, this herbaceous perennial grows in the wild along forest edges, in clearings and along roads, almost across the whole continent.

Stinking hellebore is a tall-stemmed hellebore that stands upright on thick, vertical stems 12 to 30 inches tall (30 to 80 cm). Large, 6 to 10 inch-long leaves are lance-shaped, clustered together to form larger fan-like structures. They have a deep green color. Flowers tend to rise far above this evergreen leafage.

When you crumple a leaf, it releases a foul, bad-smelling scent. When mature, Helleborus foetidus produces a tall, apical floral stem. The melliferous flowers are ½ to 1 inch across (1 to 3 cm). They’re shaped like slanted bells and never fully open. Their pale green color is rimmed with violet edges.

Growing stinking hellebore

Dungwort loves growing in part sun and part shade, sheltered from wind, preferably on soil that is a bit chalky. The soil must stay cool, drain out well, and the pH range that’s best is lightly acidic to very alkaline. Very hardy (colder even than 5°F or -15 °C), stinking hellebore is an easy perennial to grow, but its growth is very slow. It needs 1 to 2 years just to settle in.

Planting dungwort

Stinking hellebore plantingIt’s best to plant stinking hellebore in spring or at the end of summer. Proceed with care, because this Helleborus species doesn’t like being transplanted.

  1. Add compost prepared from leaves or other organic matter to enrich the planting soil.
  2. Space plants far enough apart that they have space to spread later on.
  3. Water right after planting.
  4. Spread out a layer of mulch about 1 to 2 inches (2 to 5 cm) thick at the foot of the plants.

Caring for Helleborus foetidus

Fetid hellebore, the foul-smelling stinking helleboreRemove wilted leaves regularly. Do this especially when you start noticing flower buds. Once a flower has wilted away, you can remove the stem. You can also wait for seeds to have fallen out of the pod to do this. That’s also a good time to replace the surface soil around your hellebore: topdress with compost or very ripe manure. Also add compost to the soil during fall and spring, this will stimulate the blooming of your stinking hellebore.

Be careful! Helleborus foetidus doesn’t like sitting water, it will make its roots rot away. However, you must also strike a balance: the soil should never dry out completely over the summer.

Multiplying smelly hellebore

How to propagate smelly helleboreOnce it’s well settled in, you won’t have much trouble propagating your dungwort thanks to its self-sowing seeds. Ants often carry the seeds around the garden, so you can be sure to see some sprout in unexpected places! Note that a fresh, recently released seed will sprout very quickly if it’s outdoors on cool soil.

Diseases and pests

Stinking hellebore is vulnerable to black rot and its leaves occasionally show signs of black spot. As for pests, aphids and snails are its main enemies.

Toxicity of stinking hellebore

In olden days, the plant was considered medicinal and people tried using it to treat madness, but in reality, this is the most toxic garden plant of all. These compounds are the culprits: glucosides, helleborine, helleboreine, and saponin. All parts of the plant are toxic, and the roots are the most dangerous portion of the plant. Even simply touching the plant can lead to rashes and itchiness. Wear gloves to handle your stinking hellebore.

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Images: CC BY 2.0: Michael Figiel; Nature & Garden contributor: KANENORI; Pixabay: Jaqueline Henning, Annette Meyer
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  • Stella wrote on 10 March 2022 at 19 h 29 min

    Can stinky hellibore be toxic for equines?

    • Gaspard wrote on 11 March 2022 at 4 h 45 min

      Hi Stella, yes. All the plants of the hellebore family are highly toxic to horses (to humans and other pets as well). For instance, just half a pound of fresh hellebore can kill a horse (250g). When it’s well dried and fermented, as is the case in hay fodder, the potency is reduced somewhat but there may still be mild effects of poisoning even when only a little bit is present. Large quantities, again, will kill animals of the equine family even if dried and fermented.