Helleborus viridis
Helleborus viridis Linnaeus

Of all the stemless species H. viridis, the green hellebore, has the widest distribution, growing over most of western and central Europe and, considering the variation that occurs in similar species in Yugoslavia, is remarkably constant. In most of its forms it is one of the less gardenworthy species but a mature clump can make an attractive and interesting specimen. This is consistently the darkest of the green flowered species and usually the shortest in growth.

General description

This is a deciduous perennial 12-16in (30-40cm) in height, whose young leaves emerge green or sometimes purple or copper tinted and may be slightly downy underneath. Mature foliage is usually about 12in (30cm) across, pedately divided into 5-7 main segments, with the outer two again divided giving a total of up to about 11-20 divisions. The individual divisions are lance shaped, untoothed towards the base but quite sharply toothed, or jagged, for a third to a quarter of their length.

Three to five flowers are carried on stems which are often a little reddish, especially towards the base, and the individual nodding flowers are 1-2in (2.5-5cm) across and rich acid green in colour, some with darker veins, and the outer two petals may be darker than the others; the nectaries are green. Plants with yellow-green flowers are found in some areas. The flowers vary in shape, those on some plants having petals which are pointed, while others, even in the same colony may be almost rounded. Occasional petals may have a slightly hooked, brown point or there may be an extra petal.

Helleborus viridis subsp. viridis

Distinctive features

This subspecies is distinguished by its strongly pedate foliage, with from seven to twenty divisions, which is slightly downy underneath. In some colonies the young foliage is brown or purple tinted. The flowers are also relatively large at 13/4-2in (4-5cm) across. Some plants may have purple styles, some have exceptionally long pedicels reaching 21/4in (6cm).

Natural distribution and habitat

This is the form found in S.E. France, Switzerland, N. Italy, S Germany and Austria. In Piemonte, just across the border into Italy from S.E. France, it grows, like so many green flowered species, on the edge of woodland and in nearby sloping meadows.

Helleborus viridis subsp. occidentalis

Helleborus viridis subsp. occidentalis (Reut.) Schiffner

Distinctive features

The flowers are usually small, 1-13/4in (2.5-4cm), and the leaves less noticeably pedate, smooth beneath and more coarsely toothed. In Spain and the Pyrenees the flowers tend to be larger and more rounded and the young leaves may have a coppery tint.

Natural distribution and habitat

This is the subspecies which occurs in Britain and also in Belgium, France, Spain and West Germany. It is also said to be naturalised in New England, having been taken across the Atlantic for its medicinal properties.

The painter Cedric Morris found this species in the Picos de Europa in north west Spain growing with a dark form of Erythronium dens-canis, white Hepatica nobilis, Himantoglossum hircinum (the lizard orchid), Narcissus asturensis, N. bulbocodium, and three different forms of N. pseudonarcissus. In the same area Hilda Davenport-Jones found very large flowered plants growing in the open amongst large limestone rocks and it seems that here and also in the Pyrenees, the plants tend to favour these open, rocky places and show a tendency to larger, more rounded flowers on taller stems.

In the eastern Pyrenees its companions include Hepatica nobilis, Lilium martagon, Moneses uniflora, Polygonatum verticillatum and Pyrola rotundifolia.


As its habits in the wild tend to demonstrate, this species rarely grows in the open, prefers heavier shade than other species and is also tolerant of heavy clay soil. The deep shade it prefers seems to discourage rapid growth and prolific reproduction in the wild, and this is also the case in gardens for many gardeners report a long wait before seedlings first flower, generally slow growth and a tendency to fade away unaccountably.

In gardens

This demure, green flowered plant needs complimentary neighbours. The pale green form of our native primrose, forma. viridiflora, would be ideal and perhaps x Heucherella 'Rosalie' with its bold brown-marked foliage. The Chinese version of our native golden saxifrage, Chrysoplenium davidianum, would be suitable as would a sympathetic snowdrop like the yellow double 'Lady Elphinstone'.

The green hellebore in Britain

The British plant, H. viridis subsp. occidentalis, grows almost entirely in alkaline conditions, particularly on carboniferous, oolitic and magnesium limestone. Its usual habitat is deciduous woods often on chalk or chalky boulder clay, although it can sometimes be found in open grassland and there was once a population in limestone pavement in Cumbria but this was destroyed by mining. The map shows the main areas of distribution and as with H. foetidus many of the recods refer to introductions and garden escapes.

Many populations of this plant have been the subject of debate over the years, in some areas it can be difficult to decide whether a given population is genuinely native, or is the result of deliberate introduction or escape from gardens. For those populations found in derelict gardens or in hedgerows outside gardens the origins are clear. Those which grew on the island of Bute in the eighteenth century could not have been native. But mature, regenerating populations in woods some way from habitation may also be the result of introduction.

In Buff Wood in Cambridge this plant grows on heavy, basic soil in mixed hazel and oak wood; it is found amongst the most dense growth, which is also the wettest part of the wood, but not in the areas invaded by brambles. The majority of the plants have young foliage tinted with purple, especially at the edges, and the flowers are small even for this species, usually 1in (2.5cm) across. Here it grows amongst bluebells and ivy and also Anemone nemerosa, Arum maculatum, Glechoma hederacea, Mercuralis perennis and Primula vulgaris. Oxlips, Primula elatior, grow in another part of the wood.

Elizabeth Strangman has examined a very healthy colony in Kent, growing in a small damp wood on the North Downs above the Pilgrim's Way. Here it grows under coppiced hazel with scattered ash, hawthorn and field maple. Its dominant companions are Anemone nemerosa, Hyacinthoides non-scriptus and Mercurialis perennis. Also growing with it in the wood were Adoxa moschatellina, Allium ursinum, Arum maculatum, Clematis vitalba, Dryopteris dilatata, Galeobdolon luteum, Heracleum sphondylium, Paris quadrifolia, Primula vulgaris, Ranunculus auricomus and R. ficaria, Rubus fruticosus and Silene dioica.

The plants grew mostly in small groups, the largest being about 10ft (3m) square, were about 16in (40cm) in height with leaves 12-14in (30-35cm) across. The flowers were a more typical size for this species than those in the Bufff Wood colony, most were 11/2-13/4in (3-4cm) with a very few at 2in (5cm) and they were generally rather starry in shape although a few were well rounded. This colony is unusual in that some plants have flowers with dark red streaks at the base of the petals although these marks were usually more prominent on just two petals. Elizabeth also noticed one plant with variegated foliage, possibly caused by virus.

The British plant also grows in drier beechwoods where Aquilegia vulgaris, Daphne laureola and Polygonatum multiflorum are typical companions. In chalk scrub it is found with Atropa belladonna, Brachypodium sylvaticum, Clinopodium vulgare, Glechoma hederacea
Inula conyza, Origanum vulgare and Viola hirta as well as Helleborus foetidus.

In addition the the red veined form found in Kent and occasionally elsewhere, form with more solid red marks at the base of the petals was described from Surrey as forma maculatus and similar plants have been found in Somerset but they have not been recorded recently in either location. A form with purple flower stems and purple-tipped nectaries has been found in Suffolk.

In Britain this is a rare plant, but comparing genuinely wild populations with those of H. foetidus it turns out to be more common - though less well known. The reduction in its habitat and its use in medicine have contributed to its scarcity. It has always been dug from the wild and moved to gardens, and in the eighteenth century a large consignment of roots was received by Guys Hospital in London every year.

Parkinson, writing in 1629, tells that this plant, rather than the preferred H. niger is 'most used in Physicke, because it is more plentifull, yet it is more churlish and strong in operation than the true or former kind'. He goes on: 'The roots of both kinds are safe medicines, being rightly prepared, to be used for all Melancholicke diseases, whatsoever others may fear or write, and may be without danger applied, so as care and skill, and not temporary rashness doe order and dispose of them. The powder of the dryed leaves, especially of the bastard kind (H. viridis) is a sure remedy to kill worms in children, moderately taken.'

However, treating children with this plant was a risky business for as Gilbert White recounts: 'Where it killed not the patient it would certainly kill the worms; but the worst of it is, it will sometimes kill both.' It was also used against boils and spots and in the Lake District was known as fellon grass, fellon or felon being an old name for a small abscess or boil especially under a finger or toe nail. Felonwort was a name also given to Chelidonium majus, Geranium robertianum and Solanum dulcamara which were used to treat the same problem. Other names for H. viridis were green lily, bear's foot, boar's foot and, in contrast to the he-barfoot of H. foetidus, she-barfoot.

Cultivated forms

'Pailhes' A variegated form of subsp. occidentalis with cream streaking all over the leaf. This was found by Leon Doyen in the Pyrenees in 1990 and there is a small plant in Jeremy Wood's National Collection. The plant has been checked for virus and is not infected so the variegation must be genetic in origin and is present in seedlings of the plant.

All words ©Graham Rice or © Graham Rice/Elizabeth Strangman 1993-2002. All pictures ©Graham Rice/gardenphotos.com unless otherwise stated. All Rights Reserved.