Synonyms: White False Hellebore, White False Helleborine, Itchweed
Scientific Name: Veratrum album L.
Family: Melanthiaceae (Bunchflower family)
The Alpine and Jura mountain ranges to a height of 2000 metres.
Extremely poisonous alkaloids.
The White Hellebore is an impressive feature of the wet meadows of mountainous regions. It resembles the Yellow Gentian in stature and in the appearance of its leaves, but is actually related to the Lily family. Its short, cylindrical rhizome has numerous thin root outgrowths and bears a thickly haired stem which can grow up to 1.5 metres high. The lower part of this stem is encased in large, elliptical leaves which can reach 30 centimetres in length. Towards the top of the plant the leaves become lance-shaped. They are parallel-veined. The upper portion of the plant is dominated by a large cluster of massed flowers. The individual florets can grow to about one centimetre in size and are white to greenish-white with six petals. They do not appear until this perennial plant is around ten years old. White Hellebore flowers from July to August, and its great clusters of flowers are very impressive. In sunny weather, in particular, they develop an obtrusive scent which emphasises this powerful impression.
All parts of this plant, especially the root, are deadly poisonous! Care should be taken to differentiate between the White Hellebore and the Yellow Gentian, to which it is almost identical when not in flower. The Yellow Gentian is used as strong bitters in aids to digestion. One good way of distinguishing the plants is to look at the leaf veins: in the White Hellebore these are parallel, while in the Yellow Gentian they are reticulate. Nevertheless, great care should be exercised when collecting Yellow Gentian!
In homeopathy, preparations of the root diluted by potentising are used to treat conditions such as low blood pressure, depression, migraine and bronchitis in the elderly. Lower potencies are used for diarrhoea, food poisoning, sciatica, calf cramps and neuralgias.
White Hellebore is deadly poisonous! Only in the hands of medical professionals is it a potent medicine.
What to Do in Case of Poisoning
Just two grams of dried root can be deadly. The first signs of poisoning are nausea, vomiting, violent diarrhoea and a slow pulse. If poisoning is suspected, inform a doctor and hospital immediately. In many countries special poisons information centres provide a free 24-hour professional advice service. On the website of the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety you will find a list of poisons informations centres in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The White Hellebore should not be confused with Helleborus niger, the Christmas Rose. This belongs to the Ranunculaceae or Buttercup family and its white flowers are one of the first signs of spring. Both cause sneezing and are included as active ingredients in some snuffs. Thus Schneeberger Schnupftabak snuff contains traces of dried root of White Hellebore. The amounts are so small that the user need not be concerned about poisoning. But taking this snuff frequently may cause nosebleeds.
According to Hippocrates’ doctrine of humours, sneezing has a beneficial effect on all kinds of mental diseases. These were held to be caused by congestion of the brain, which could be eliminated by sneezing vigorously. At the same time, sneezing was supposed to hone the mind and confirm that a true word had been spoken. This is probably the origin of the scientific name Veratrum, from the Latin verus = true. The English name hellebore is thought to derive from the Greek helein = to injure and bora = food, referring to the poisonous nature of the plant.
In antiquity White Hellebore was used to spike poisonous darts and for murder. Since it is also poisonous to animals it was formerly used to kill lice and to catch birds and fish. Farmers, however, are not at all pleased to come across White Hellebore, because it exhausts the soil and can kill grazing animals if they do not know better than to eat it. Older animals with more experience carefully avoid it.
The North American Indians were familiar with the emetic properties of White Hellebore. The brave whose stomach proved most resistant to the root was considered worthy of becoming the big chief.