Those walking along Western Avenue in Bridge this January may have noticed an unusual flowering plant growing under the trees in the Ford Close garden square. If you haven’t seen it, do go back and have a closer look; for there, right in front of your nose, you will see the rather rare Stinking Hellibore.
Despite the name, this is a delightfully exotic looking plant of subtle blooms and colouring, which seems out of place here flowering alone in a British winter, but it is one of our two native wild Hellibores, the other being the Green Hellibore. Both are related to the buttercup. They are sometimes grown in private gardens for their winter foliage and flowers, and it is of course possible that this one is an escapee, but that possibility is in itself part of the story of our native Hellibores; they have been passing from the wild into gardens and back again for centuries, but nevertheless they have become a rare sight in the wild in modern times. For location they prefer the semi-shade and shelter of trees on chalky soil, as we have locally on the downs: and being a true winter flower, they display an abundance of discreet blooms from January through into spring.
The name Stinking Hellibore and the plant’s other common appellation, Dungwort, may seem to give an ominous clue to its aroma, but it’s a false lead: the plant can sometimes have a very pleasant fragrance and only when it is crushed does it smell mildly unsavoury. Parts of the plant contain digitalin, used medicinally for lowering blood pressure, but Stinking Hellibore is extremely toxic so its use is restricted: it must never be eaten and hands must be washed after contact(1).
(1) Anyone with safety concerns about this should note buttercups, daffodils and many other common flowers are also very toxic, but cases of poisoning are extremely rare.