Thursday, January 5, 2012

Plants with Winter Interest Part 3 - Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

Helleborus foetidus in Eckhart Shade Garden
Picture taken 12/31/11 about 10:00 am
Kathy covered Lenten Rose, or Helleborus x hybridus in the spring of 2010.  This is its cousin Helleborus foetidus, or stinking hellebore.  I'm not sure why it got its name, since there doesn't seem to be any particularly bad scent that I can detect.  The word hellebore comes from a Greek word meaning ‘food to kill’.  That sorta makes sense, since the plant is poisonous, although it's only toxic if large quantities are ingested, and any skin irritation is minor, lasting for only a few minutes.  It's native to Europe, but is widely cultivated here.

Another common name is bear-foot hellebore - also not very descriptive (maybe the leaves?)  The USDA Plants database lists "setterwort" as a common name, apparently because the root was used in settering, or inserting setons into the dewlaps of cattle.

Like that helps.

Regardless, it's a wonderful plant for winter.  It's dark green foliage deepens in the cold weather, and it's just getting ready to bloom now.


Helleborus foetidus in the Eckhart Shade Garden
Picture taken 12/31/11 about 10:00 am
In addition to its evergreen leaves, and early bloom, there are other qualities:
Let's see:  Cold hardy, evergreen leaves, early bloom, sun and shade tolerant, deer resistant, and drought tolerant.  Any other plant with those characteristics would be named Magical Unicorn Wonder Plant, or sumpthin'.  Instead, we get "Stinking Plant that Kills."

Taxonomy is an odd science.

Update: 1/11/12 - I adapted this blog post for an item in next week's news column and in the process of further research learned a couple of things:
  • The "bear's foot" common name is, indeed, based on the leaf structure.  To me, the leaves are more reminiscent of Cannabis leaves (aka marijuana) than a bear's foot, but of course I base that on pictures from the internet, not on any personal experience with either.
  • "Settering" which  engendered the common name "Setterwort" was a process of setting a "peg" made from the root of the plant, into the fleshy skin fold in the neck of cattle, under the mistaken belief that it would help with cattle lung problems.

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