Common Name: False Hellebore, Indian Poke, Corn Lily, Devil’s Bite, Itchweed, Swamp Hellebore, Bugbane, Green Hellebore, American Hellebore – The native North American plant was named according to its toxic properties that were like those of the true hellebores of Eurasia.
Scientific Name: Veratrum viride – The generic name is the Latin word for hellebore, a compound word formed from the Latin vere meaning ‘truly’ and ater meaning ‘black’; the noted European black hellebore is characterized by dark, shiny leaves. The species name is Latin for green. The scientific name is Latin for ‘Green Hellebore.”
Potpourri: The name hellebore is of ancient provenance with consequent speculative etymologies concerning its origins; it now is applied to a genus of Eurasian plants (Helleborus) in the Buttercup or Ranunculaceae family that contain toxic components and were well known to Greco-Roman herbalists and medical practitioners. The word hellebore is generally construed to be a combination of the Greek word ellos which is the fawn of a deer and bora meaning animal food – this would then be a plant eaten by fawns. In that the hellebores are bitter tasting due to their alkaloid content, it is more likely that the origin is in the Greek word elein, to injure, as fawns that ate it would surely suffer the consequences. The word hellebore came to be associated with plants that had high toxic content by antonomasia and it was only natural that the name carried over from Europe to be applied to the new plants of the genus Veratrum that were unrelated to their namesake but were similarly poisonous.
Plants evolve complex chemistries in response to their environments as a means of survival against predators; those with the most effective adaptations are the fittest and therefore reproduce to perpetuate their random successful mutations. False Hellebore grows in moist soil and is typically found along streambanks, a habitat it shares with many herbivores and arthropods. Were it not for the veratrum alkaloids, the succulent green stalks that emerge early in spring would not survive to flower and fruit for reproductive seed dispersal. In what can only be characterized as a feat of advanced chemical engineering, the False Hellebore produces not just one but a gamut of alkanolamines (alcohol – OH bonded to amine – NH2) that includes cervine, jervine, germine, protoveratrine and protoverine (Jervine, for example is C27H39NO3). It is not known whether the chemical complexity is the result of separate mutations and therefore separate chemicals against separate predators or whether the variety is a result of the synthesis process, the superfluous compounds the byproducts of the chemistry of formulation. What is clear, though, is that they are all toxic to varying degrees. Jervine, for example is a teratogen, having been implicated in birth defects in the offspring of grazing animals.
The alternative name Indian Poke attests to the exploitation of False Hellebore’s potent poisons by numerous Native American tribes for a variety of medicinal and cultural applications. As its toxic compounds prevail during spring and early summer when predation is most prevalent, hellebore plants were deracinated by Indian gatherers in the autumnal months to take advantage of the partial metabolism of the chemical alkaloids – their complex chemistries required substantive investment that was necessarily recovered for plant nutrition. The most general application among the various tribes was for analgesia, the comminuted root was mixed with animal fat in liniment form for use as a vulnerary for open sores and as a topical salve for muscle pain. However, specific uses varied according to local shaman practices based on trial and error; it is implicit that any plant imbued with poisonous compounds can be used in the treatment of various ailments if prepared judiciously at reduced dosage. For example, the Iroquois used a powder made from the roots as a snuff for the treatment of headaches and respiratory problems including tuberculosis, catarrh and colds. Its full strength potential was also understood; the Blackfoot Indians ate False Hellebore roots to commit suicide, a practice that was apparently not uncommon in Native American cultures. Perhaps the most interesting use was in the vetting of candidates for tribal chief. Those of the appropriate age, strength and sagacity were given increasing doses of hellebore root; the individual who could tolerate the highest dose without sickness was chosen as the new leader.
The medicinal practices of the Native Americans were adapted and in some cases greatly expanded by the colonizing Europeans; False Hellebore is a good example. The processing method, as provided in the 1883 American Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia, is identical to the traditional Indian technique: “The fresh root is gathered in autumn, chopped and pounded into a pulp;” the subsequent addition of alcohol for an eight day soak, decant, and filter resulted in the final tincture. Appearing in the United States Pharmacopeia in 1898, it was prescribed for a wide range of conditions. In addition to the traditional analgesic treatments, it was prescribed for respiratory problems ranging from pneumonia to chronic coughing and for gastrointestinal conditions such as constipation and stomach ache. On the more quotidian side, its poisons were so potent that the dried and powdered root was used as an insecticide both in distributed applications and as an additive to laundry water to rid clothing of lice (whence the name Bugbane). The use of the veratrum alkaloids persisted well into the 20th Century most frequently through in the form of protoveratrine, one of the several alkaloids, as a means of reducing high blood pressure. The unpleasant side effects, typically nausea and vomiting (the body’s reaction to a poison is to expel it), led to some question as to the efficacy of this practice. A 1957 study of the hypertension treatment of 17 patients published in a British Medical Journal found that the results were “good in three, fair in three and unsatisfactory in eleven.” Due to the harmful and potentially fatal side effects of hellebore alkaloids, they are now widely proscribed. The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs has the pithy caveat: “All parts, especially the root, are highly or fatally toxic … Too dangerous for use. Even handling the plant is dangerous as the alkaloids can be absorbed through the skin.” However, Panglossian herbalists persist in the melioristic view that it is good medicine. Indian Herbalogy (sic) of North America (published in 1991 by Shambhala Publications) accords American Hellebore the distinction of being “unsurpassed by any article as an expectorant” and “as an arterial sedative (whatever that is) it stands unparalleled and unequalled.” With regard to hypertension, “In suitable doses it can be relied upon to bring upon to bring the pulse down from 150 beats per minute to forty or even thirty” (and with a tad too much to a pulse of zero beats per minute and quietus).
That the word hellebore instantiates toxicity is not surprising, the chemical constituents of both Black Hellebore (Helleborus niger) and White Hellebore (Veratrum album) have been used since antiquity as both medicines and possibly as iatrogenic poisons. To add to the confusion, there is also a green European hellebore (Helleborus viridis) that has probably been conflated in legend and lore. Of the three, Black Hellebore has the most distinguished lineage, having been used by the Greek physician Hippocrates (whence the Hippocratic Oath) primarily as a purgative (it should come as no surprise that something mildly toxic would empty the bowels). The most compelling historical association of hellebore as poison concerns the mysterious and untimely death of Alexander the Great at the age of 32 in the Babylon palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in 323 BCE after having succeeded in conquering most of the known civilized world from Egypt to the Indus River. The noted historians Plutarch and Diodorus both reported that he died after a gradual decline in health after about two weeks, a period of time that is consistent with hellebore poisoning.