I first grew the stinking hellebore as a child on thin acidic sand in the shadowy stillness of woodland. We were surrounded on all sides and the woods were always on the advance to the point that, when we moved there in the mid 1970s, the vegetation was pressing against the windows. Our acre was a long-forgotten garden and we made clearings and pushed back against the brambles and the saplings as we unpicked what had once been there before.
The Helleborus foetidus was one of the plants that thrived for me there as a young gardener. My first plant was ordered from Beth Chatto and I watched its every move. The first year’s reach to establish its long-fingered greenery and the wait for the second for it to throw its mass of pale jade flower. The bladdery seedpods that followed in early summer and, the following spring, the rain of seedlings and the places that they preferred to be. Being easy in our setting, they taught me that, if you find the right place for a plant, it will sing for you. I can see those plants in my mind’s eye now. Quietly architectural, poised yet slightly melancholy, but holding so much promise when the leaves on the trees were down.
With my eyes newly opened and hungry for life in the winter I began to see it everywhere both in the wild and sitting happily in a garden setting. On the thin chalky soil of the South Downs I found it running through ancient woodland with lustrous hart’s tongue ferns, dog’s mercury and, later, bluebells. This was its territory according to the books, but one that couldn’t be more different from the rhododendron country we lived in just a short cycle ride away. I saw it then pushing onto a verge from a hedge and happy in sunshine where it was escaping a garden. Just a stone’s throw away the parent plant sat contentedly against the base of a bright flinty wall to challenge my feeling that I already knew this plant. Of course, I didn’t know from just growing it once that it is a plant that is happy to compromise if it likes you.
I have not grown Helleborus foetidus for myself again until fairly recently, living vicariously in the interim years through my clients’ gardens and conducting an erratic relationship, like you do with faraway friends. You have to fill in the gaps of influence when you see a plant, or indeed a friend from only time to time, but I have learned through time about its longevity. If the conditions are too good, it will live fast and move on after a handful of years. If you give it too much direct competition and immediate shadow it will dwindle and if you grow it hard, with plenty of light, be it a cool north light or the brightness of an open position, it will provide you with the most handsome growth. Handsome and all-year-round is what Helleborus foetidus does best.
The Lenten roses (Helleborus hybridus) are ultimately longer-lived and better adapted to a long distance relationship or the vagaries of their custodian’s gardening knowledge. So, the steadfast Helleborus hybridus were favoured in the Peckham garden where I didn’t have room for both. The Lenten Roses came from Peckham to here and until recently I hadn’t thought about rekindling my acquaintance with the stinking hellebore, because we are as exposed and open to sun as I was huddled in trees as a teenager. But just down the hill in a farmer’s garden, there is a colony growing contentedly where his intolerance of anything but grass has pushed them into a rugged bank that is too steep to mow. Seeing them happily flowering in the bright open sunshine amongst primroses reminded me it was time to live with them again.
I have put them in two places here, one in more shadow, amongst the rangy limbs of the black-catkinned Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’ and another group against the potting shed where the ground is dry and free draining and there is plenty of light under a lofty holly. They face east here and receive a blast of morning sunshine, so they have grown stockily amongst Butcher’s Broom (Ruscus aculeatus) and Cyclamen coum. Their leaves are also more metallic and light resistant than those growing in the shade of the shrubby willow. The two groups couldn’t be more different but they are coming into bloom together.
The plants take a year to get up the strength they need to throw their prodigious flowering head. This is held aloft and above the ruff of leafage beneath them. As they mature they branch again and again so that there are tens or even hundred at their zenith in March . The first opened here in the first week of the new year and the unravelling as one joins another is good to mark the passing of wintery time. The flowers are known for being slightly warmer when they are producing pollen and make a good early plant for pollinators. They will produce plentiful amounts of seed if you let them, but I prefer to leave just one limb to seed in a group and cut the rest to the base to save energy once you begin to see the plant has peaked in the middle of March or a little later. You will know when it is time as your focus goes to other spring flowers, which by this time are fresher.
One limb saved will rain all the seed you need for youngsters. All the remaining energy goes into the new growth, which comes from the base to mound architecturally over the summer. Though there is a fine, scented form called ‘Miss Jekyll’, the stink in the stinking hellebore comes from the foliage when crushed. It is when you are cutting this old growth away that you first encounter the beefy smell that you instinctively know will not be good for you. All parts of the plant are toxic if eaten and cause violent vomiting and delirium, sometimes death. Interestingly, in times past they were used, in miniscule quantity, to treat worms. Note, however, that the 18th Century herbalist Gilbert White called this ‘cure’: “a violent remedy … to be administered with caution”.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 15 January 2021