HELLEBORE (Gr. ἑλλέβορος: mod. Gr. also σκάφη: Ger. Nieswurz, Christwurz; Fr. hellébore, and in the district of Avranche, herbe enragée), a genus (Helleborus) of plants of the natural order Ranunculaceae, natives of Europe and western Asia. They are coarse perennial herbs with palmately or pedately lobed leaves. The flowers have five persistent petaloid sepals, within the circle of which are placed the minute honey-containing tubular petals of the form of a horn with an irregular opening. The stamens are very numerous, and are spirally arranged; and the carpels are variable in number, sessile or stipitate and slightly united at the base and dehisce by ventral suture.

Helleborus niger, black hellebore, or, as from blooming in mid-winter it is termed the Christmas rose (Ger. Schwarze Nieswurz; Fr., rose de Noël or rose d’hiver), is found in southern and central Europe, and with other species was cultivated in the time of Gerard (see Herball, p. 977, ed. Johnson, 1633) in English gardens. Its knotty root-stock is blackish-brown externally, and, as with other species, gives origin to numerous straight roots. The leaves spring from the top of the root-stock, and are smooth, distinctly pedate, dark-green above, and lighter below, with 7 to 9 segments and long petioles. The scapes, which end the branches of the rhizome, have a loose entire bract at the base, and terminate in a single flower, with two bracts, from the axis of one of which a second flower may be developed. The flowers have 5 white or pale-rose, eventually greenish sepals, 15 to 18 lines in breadth; 8 to 13 tubular green petals containing honey; and 5 to 10 free carpels. There are several forms, the best being maximus. The Christmas rose is extensively grown in many market gardens to provide white flowers forced in gentle heat about Christmas time for decorations, emblems, &c.

H. orientalis, the Lenten rose, has given rise to several fine hybrids with H. niger, some of the best forms being clear in colour and distinctly spotted. H. foetidus, stinking hellebore, is a native of England, where like H. viridis, it is confined chiefly to limestone districts; it is common in France and the south of Europe. Its leaves have 7- to 11-toothed divisions, and the flowers are in panicles, numerous, cup-shaped and drooping, with many bracts, and green sepals tinged with purple, alternating with the five petals.

H. viridis, or green hellebore proper, is probably indigenous in some of the southern and eastern counties of England, and occurs also in central and southern Europe. It has bright yellowish-green flowers, 2 to 4 on a stem, with large leaf-like bracts. O. Brunfels and H. Bock (16th century) regarded the plant as the black hellebore of the Greeks.

H. lividus, holly-leaved hellebore, found in the Balearic Islands, and in Corsica and Sardinia, is remarkable for the handsomeness of its foliage. White hellebore is Veratrum album (see Veratrum), a liliaceous plant.

Helleborus niger. 1, Vertical section of flower; 2, Nectary, side and front view.

Hellebores may be grown in any ordinary light garden mould, but thrive best in a soil of about equal parts of turfy loam and well-rotted manure, with half a part each of fibrous peat and coarse sand, and in moist but thoroughly-drained situations, more especially where, as at the margins of shrubberies, the plants can receive partial shade in summer. For propagation cuttings of the rhizome may be taken in August, and placed in pans of light soil, with a bottom heat of 60° to 70° Fahr.; hellebores can also be grown from seed, which must be sown as soon as ripe, since it quickly loses its vitality. The seedlings usually blossom in their third year. The exclusion of frost favours the production of flowers; but the plants, if forced, must be gradually inured to a warm atmosphere, and a free supply of air must be afforded, without which they are apt to become much affected by greenfly. For potting, H. niger and its varieties, and H. orientalis, atrorubens and olympicus have been found well suited. After lifting, preferably in September, the plants should receive plenty of light, with abundance of water, and once a week liquid manure, not over-strong. The flowers are improved in delicacy of hue, and are brought well up among the leaves, by preventing access of light except to the upper part of the plants. Of the numerous species of hellebore now grown, the deep-purple-flowered H. colchicus is one of the handsomest; by crossing with H. guttatus and other species several valuable garden forms have been produced, having variously coloured spreading or bell-shaped flowers, spotted with crimson, red or purple.

The rhizome of H. niger occurs in commerce in irregular and nodular pieces, from about 1 to 3 in. in length, white and of a horny texture within. Cut transversely it presents internally a circle of 8 to 12 cuneiform ligneous bundles, surrounded by a thick bark. It emits a faint odour when cut or broken, and has a bitter and slightly acrid taste. The drug is sometimes adulterated with the rhizome of baneberry, Actaea spicata, which, however, may be recognized by the distinctly cruciate appearance of the central portion of the attached roots when cut across, and by its decoction giving the chemical reactions for tannin.[1] The rhizome is darker in colour in proportion to its degree of dryness, age and richness in oil. A specimen dried by Schroff lost in eleven days 65% of water.

H. niger, orientalis, viridis, foetidus, and several other species of hellebore contain the glucosides helleborin, C36H42O6, and helleboreïn, C23H20O15, the former yielding glucose and helleboresin, C30H38O4, and the latter glucose and a violet-coloured substance helleboretin, C14H20O3. Helleborin is most abundant in H. viridis. A third and volatile principle is probably present in H. foetidus. Both helleborin and helleboreïn act poisonously on animals, but their decomposition-products helleboresin and helleboretin seem to be devoid of any injurious qualities. Helleborin produces excitement and restlessness, followed by paralysis of the lower extremities or whole body, quickened respiration, swelling and injection of the mucous membranes, dilatation of the pupil, and, as with helleboreïn, salivation, vomiting and diarrhoea. Helleboreïn exercises on the heart an action similar to that of digitalis, but more powerful, accompanied by at first quickened and then slow and laboured respiration; it irritates the conjunctiva, and acts as a sternutatory, but less violently than veratrine. Pliny states that horses, oxen and swine are killed by eating “black hellebore”; and Christison (On Poisons, p. 876, 11th ed., 1845) writes: “I have known severe griping produced by merely tasting the fresh root in January.” Poisonous doses of hellebore occasion in man singing in the ears, vertigo, stupor, thirst, with a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and fauces, emesis and catharsis, slowing of the pulse, and finally collapse and death from cardiac paralysis. Inspection after death reveals much inflammation of the stomach and intestines, more especially the rectum. The drug has been observed to exercise a cumulative action. Its extract was an ingredient in Bacher’s pills, an empirical remedy once in great repute in France. In British medicine the rhizome was formerly official. H. foetidus was in past times much extolled as an anthelmintic, and is recommended by Bisset (Med. Ess., pp. 169 and 195, 1766) as the best vermifuge for children; J. Cook, however, remarks of it (Oxford Mag., March 1769, p. 99): “Where it killed not the patient, it would certainly kill the worms; but the worst of it is, it will sometimes kill both.” This plant, of old termed by farriers ox-heel, setter-wort and setter-grass, as well as H. viridis (Fr. Herbe à séton), is employed in veterinary surgery, to which also the use of H. niger is now chiefly confined in Britain.

In the early days of medicine two kinds of hellebore were recognized, the white or Veratrum album (see Veratrum), and the black, including the various species of Helleborus. The former, according to Codronchius (Comm.... de elleb., 1610), Castellus (De helleb. epist., 1622), and others, is the drug usually signified in the writings of Hippocrates. Among the hellebores indigenous to Greece and Asia Minor, H. orientalis, the rhizome of which differs from that of H. niger and of H. viridis in the bark being readily separable from the woody axis, is the species found by Schroff to answer best to the descriptions given by the ancients of black hellebore, the ἑλλέβορος μέλας of Dioscorides. The rhizome of this plant, if identical, as would appear, with that obtained by Tournefort at Prusa in Asia Minor (Rel. d’un voy. du Levant, ii. 189, 1718), must be a remedy of no small toxic properties. According to an early tradition, black hellebore administered by the soothsayer and physician Melampus (whence its name Melampodium), was the means of curing the madness of the daughters of Proetus, king of Argos. The drug was used by the ancients in paralysis, gout and other diseases, more particularly in insanity, a fact frequently alluded to by classical writers, e.g. Horace (Sat. ii. 3. 80-83, Ep. ad Pis. 300). Various superstitions were in olden times connected with the cutting of black hellebore. The best is said by Pliny (Nat. hist. xxv. 21) to grow on Mt Helicon. Of the three Anticyras that in Phocis was the most famed for its hellebore, which, being there used combined with “sesamoides,” was, according to Pliny, taken with more safety than elsewhere.

The British Pharmaceutical Conference has recommended the preparation which it terms the tinctura veratri viridis, as the best form in which to administer this drug. It may be given in doses of 5-15 minims. The tincture is prepared from the dried rhizome and rootlets of green hellebore, containing the alkaloids jervine, veratrine and veratroidine. It is recommended as a cardiac and nervous sedative in cerebral haemorrhage and puerperal eclampsia. Black hellebore is a purgative and uterine stimulant.

  1. For the microscopical characters and for figures of transverse sections of the rhizome, see Lanessan, Hist. des drogues, i. 6 (1878).