Hellebore, Black

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Hellebore, Black

Botanical Name: Helleborus niger (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Ranunculaceae

Synonyms: Christe Herbe. Christmas Rose. Melampode.
Parts Used: Rhizome, root.
Habitat: It is a native of the mountainous regions of Central and Southern Europe, Greece and Asia Minor, and is cultivated largely in this country as a garden plant. Supplies of the dried rhizome, from which the drug is prepared, have hitherto come principally from Germany.

Two allied species are natives of this country, but this particular kind does not grow wild here.

The Black Hellebore - once known as Melampode - is a perennial, low-growing plant, with dark, shining, smooth leaves and flower-stalks rising directly from the root, its pure white blossoms appearing in the depth of winter and thereby earning for it the favourite name of Christmas Rose.

The generic name of this plant is derived from the Greek elein (to injure) and bora (food), and indicates its poisonous nature. The specific name refers to the darkcoloured rootstock.

The Black Hellebore used by the Greeks has been identified by Dr. Sibthorp as Helleborus officinalis, a handsome plant, with a branching stem, bearing numerous serrated bracts, and three to five whitish flowers. It is a native of Greece, Asia Minor, etc.

The two species found wild in many parts of England, especially on a limestone soil, are H. Foetidus, the Bearsfoot, and H. Viridis, the Green Hellebore; the latter has injurious effects on cattle if eaten by them.

Both these British species possess powerful medicinal effects and are at times substituted for the true H. niger. History: According to Pliny, Black Hellebore was used as a purgative in mania byMelampus, a soothsayer and physician, 1,400 years before Christ, hence the name Melampodium applied to Hellebores. Spenser in the Shepheard's Calendar, 1579, alludes to the medicinal use of Melampode for animals. Parkinson, writing in 1641, tells us: 'a piece of the root being drawne through a hole made in the eare of a beast troubled with cough or having taken any poisonous thing cureth it, if it be taken out the next day at the same houre.' Parkinson believed that White Hellebore would be equally efficacious in such a case, but Gerard recommends the Black Horehound only, as being good for beasts. He says the old farriers used to 'cut a slit in the dewlap, and put in a bit of Beare-foot, and leave it there for daies together.' Gerard describes the plant in these words: 'It floureth about Christmas, if the winter be mild and warm . . . called Christ herbe. This plant hath thick and fat leaves of a deep green colour, the upper part whereof is somewhat bluntly nicked or toothed, having sundry diversions or cuts, in some leaves many, in others fewer, like unto a female Peony. It beareth rose-coloured flowers upon slender stems, growing immediately out of the ground, an handbreadth high, sometimes very white, and ofttimes mixed with a little shew of purple, which being faded, there succeed small husks full of black seeds; the roots are many; with long, black strings coming from one end.' Once, people blessed their cattle with this plant to keep them from evil spells, and for this purpose, it was dug up with certain mystic rites. In an old French romance, the sorcerer, to make himself invisible when passing through the enemy's camp, scatters powdered Hellebore in the air, as he goes. The following is from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy: 'Borage and hellebore fill two scenes, Sovereign plants to purge the veins Of melancholy, and cheer the heart Of those black fumes which make it smart.'

Cultivation: All kinds of Hellebore will thrive in ordinary garden soil, but for some kinds prepared soil is preferable, consisting of equal parts of good fibry loam and welldecomposed manure, half fibry peat and half coarse sand. Thorough drainage is necessary, as stagnant moisture is very injurious. It prefers a moist, sheltered situation, with partial shade, such as the margins of shrubberies. If the soil is well trenched and manured, Hellebore will not require replanting for at least seven years, if grown for flowering, but a top dressing of well-decayed manure and a little liquid manure might be given during the growing season, when plants are making their foliage. Propagation is by seeds, or division of roots. Seedlings should be pricked off thickly into a shady border, in a light, rich soil. The second year they should be transplanted to permanent quarters, and will bloom in the third year. For division of roots, the plant is strongest in July, and the clumps to be divided must be well established, with rootstocks large enough to cut. The plants will be good flowering plants in two years, but four years are required to bring them to perfection.

Part Used: The rhizome, collected in autumn and dried.

The root has a slight odour, when cut or broken, somewhat resembling Senega root. The dry powder causes violent sneezing. It has a somewhat bitter-sweet and acrid taste.

Constituents: Two crystalline glucosides, Helleborin and helleborcin, both powerful poisons. Helleborin has a burning, acrid taste and is narcotic, helleborcin has a sweetish taste and is a highly active cardiac poison, similar in its effects to digitalis and a drastic purgative. Other constituents are resin, fat and starch. No tannin is present.

Medicinal Action and Uses: The drug possesses drastic purgative, emmenagogue and anthelmintic properties, but is violently narcotic. It was formerly much used in dropsy and amenorrhoea, and has proved of value in nervous disorders and hysteria. It is used in the form of a tincture, and must be administered with great care.

Applied locally, the fresh root is violently irritant.

Preparations and Dosages: Fluid extract, 2 to 10 drops. Solid extract, 1 to 2 grains. Powdered root, 10 to 20 grains as a drastic purge, 2 to 3 grains as an alterative. Decoction, 2 drachms to the pint, a fluid ounce every four hours till effective.

A tincture of the fresh root of H. foetidus is used in homoeopathy.