I am a big fan of the caulescent (stemmed) Helleborus species. My favorite is certainly Helleborus foetidus, the so called “stinking hellebore”. While folks often expect smelly flowers, the only part of the plant that is fetid are the leaves, which leave an unpleasant odor on your hands if you fondle your hellebores too much.
Helleborus foetidus has very dark evergreen leaves with long “fingers” which clothe the 18-24″ tall stems. As a background plant to hostas and ferns in the summer garden, Helleborus foetidus is marvelous. As the perennials of summer go to sleep, the evergreen clumps of Helleborus foetidus remain and become the focus of the winter garden. In fall, the flowering stalks emerge, opening from October to around the first of the year with 1′ tall spikes of green bell-like flowers. These flowers remain attractive until early spring.
Thanks to keen gardeners around the world, there are now many different forms of Helleborus foetidus available. The most popular is Helleborus foetidus ‘Wester Flisk’, an attractive plant with red stems and slatey green leaves. Helleborus foetidus ‘Red Silver’ Strain (Northwest Garden and Nursery) and ‘Piccadilly’ (Piccadilly Farms) are similar strains. Helleborus ‘Green Giant’ is much larger and can often reach 3′ tall. Other forms boast more cutleaf foliage, dark black leaves, and a variety of other unique characteristics. One of the most unique is Helleborus foetidus ‘Chedglow’, displaying golden foliage and color that runs into the flower stalk. Helleborus foetidus is a short-lived perennial with a life expectancy of 2-3 years. Fortunately, it is a prolific seeder and once your plant of Helleborus foetidus sets seed, you should never be without this gem again.
Helleborus argutifolius is also a worthwhile garden addition. Making a 2′ tall x 2′ wide evergreen clump, it is adorned with very serrate, trifoliate leaves. In late winter, it is topped with stalks of creamy light green flowers. When winter temperatures drop below 15F, the foliage may become damaged, but the plant resprouts well when cut back to the ground in spring. One of the few selections in the trade is the clonally reproduced Helleborus argutifolius ‘Silver Lace’ with stunning silvery pewter leaves, topped with green flowers.
The most tender of the caulescent species is also the most beautiful, Helleborus lividus from Spain. The silver and green patterned leaves form a 2′ wide clump, topped with green and pink flowers that would make any gardener covet this gem. Although it has been hardy in our garden for 15 years, we are at the northernmost end of its range since it must be grown where it will receive good summer heat. The only named cultivar of Helleborus lividus is Helleborus lividus ‘White Marble’ that boasts white veins, lacking the red pigment more typical of the species.
Caulescent Hellebore Hybrids
For those a bit further north, try the hybrid Helleborus x sternii (Helleborus argutifolius x Helleborus lividus). This hybrid combines the beauty of Helleborus lividus foliage with the upright growth habit of Helleborus argutifolius. Both seed strains and tissue cultured clonal selections are available. Like Helleborus argutifolius, temperatures below 15 degrees F can damage the old foliage. Popular seed strain favorites include Helleborus ‘Boughton Beauty’ (silver grey leaves with pink flushed stems), Helleborus x sternii ‘Blackthorn’ (green leaves with grey veins and pink stems), and Helleborus ‘Rachel’ (glossy green leaves with silver veins). Clonal selections include Helleborus x sternii ‘Pacific Frost’ (white speckled leaves), Helleborus x sternii ‘Fire and Ice’ (white speckled leaves), Helleborus x sternii ‘Hot Flash’ PPAF (silver and green leaves with red veins), and Helleborus ‘Winter’s Grace’ (silver leaves and pink stems). Helleborus foetidus has so far been impossible to cross with other species, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until breeders are successful.
In conclusion, we hope you will try some of these interesting Hellebores in your own garden. We think you will enjoy Helleborus foetidus as much as we do.