Q: A perennial with exquisite light-green flowers and a big price tag caught my eye at a local nursery, but then I saw that it was labeled “stinking hellebore” and heard another shopper say it’s notoriously hard to transplant. Is it really worth the trouble — and what about that smell? — Denise Hendricks, Colts Neck, N.J.
A: Despite this plant’s malodorous name, don’t turn up your nose: Helleborus foetidus provides some of winter gardening’s greatest pleasures. Yes, if you crush its leaves or tear the stems, they release a (moderately) rank, grassy smell, but I’ve never caught a whiff of anything even faintly foul when weeding around H. foetidus or snipping its flower stalks for arrangements indoors. Nestled in a semishady part of the garden, preferably in sight of a window, this cold-weather friend puts out cheerful chartreuse blossoms throughout the winter, and the glossy evergreen leaves are handsome. For my money, this is the biggest and best of all hellebores. Mature plants are a stately 2 feet tall and bloom an astonishingly long time: From the moment when light green bud clusters start to unfurl, around Thanksgiving, the show gets better every week, well into spring. I leave the faded flower stalks in place a few weeks longer, until the seed crop ripens in early summer.
Established hellebores in the garden are indeed difficult to transplant successfully, but container-grown plants and young seedlings are easy. If you want to gather seed from a garden plant, watch its seed capsules closely for the first signs of browning and splitting. Once a capsule opens, the dark, oval seeds can spill out in a matter of hours. Plant them right after you collect them, since hellebore seeds lose viability if they are stored dry. It’s best to scatter them in flats or in a nursery bed within a week after gathering them. Seeds will begin to sprout late the following winter. The plants grow slowly and typically take three summers to reach flowering size, which is one reason nursery-raised hellebores are pricey. (H. foetidus is virtually impossible to divide, so seed is the only way to increase stock.) This is a hardy, widely adaptable plant. It thrives in zones 5 to 9, requiring only some shade from the brightest summer sun and well-drained soil (alkaline soils are fine, but so are acid soils rich in organic matter). Drought-tolerant, H. foetidus is also one of the finest perennials for dry shade. A very similar species that is better adapted to milder winters is the Corsican hellebore, H. argutifolius. Typically, individual plants of both species live only five or six years, but with several generations of seedlings waiting in the wings, you’ll never be without replacements.