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Helleborus spp., hellebore

Helleborus orientalis, lenten rose

Helleborus orientalis, lenten rose

Summary

These common garden plants, popular because they flower during the depths of winter, may have been, until the 18th century, responsible for the deaths of many children at the hands of their own parents.

 

 

 

 

'Poisonous Plants 1-2-1' video

This short video summarising the story of the hellebore is just one of a series.

Family

Ranunculaceae

Meaning of the Name


Helleborus orientalis, lenten rose

Helleborus orientalis, lenten rose

Helleborus
Believed to come from the Greek ‘ellos/hellos’, ‘fawn’ and ‘bora’, ‘food’, thus, food for a fawn. An alternative is that the first syllable is from 'hele' meaning to take away so that the name 'take way food' refers to the emetic nature of the plant. 
 
cyclophyllus
From the Greek ‘kyklos’ ‘circle’ and the Latin ‘pilosus’, ‘hairy’ describing the flower.
 
foetidus
Directly from the Latin for ‘stinking’ because of its smell.
 
niger
‘Black’ from the colour of the roots.
 
odorus
‘Fragrant’
 
orientalis
‘From the East’ describing the first discovery of this species.
 
purpurascens
‘Tending towards purple’ indicating the rather delicate colour.

Common Names and Synonyms

Sources - Dioscorides

Pedacius Dioscorides, sometimes called Pedanius Dioscorides, lived in the first century AD; his exact dates are unknown. Though Greek, he worked most of his time as a physician in Rome. His five volume ‘De Materia Medica’ is often spoken of as the only such work to have been written at that time but, in his own introduction, Dioscorides talks of the ‘many writers of modern times, as well as of antiquity, [who] have composed Treatises on the preparation, power and testing of medicines’. He states that he is not motivated by any ‘vain or senseless impulse’ but rather ‘because some of these authors did not perfect their work’.
 
Whether it is because Dioscorides did ‘perfect their work’ or just happenstance, ‘De Materia Medica’ is one of the few works of that time which survived. Illustrations were added to it in 512 and it was translated into English in 1655 indicating that it has remained a work of reference throughout history.
 
Though undoubtedly a work of great worth, it is not without its problems. Dioscorides’ descriptions are sometimes hard to attach to a specific plant and the unknown Byzantine illustrator has, on occasion, reached the wrong conclusion so that the plant described does not match the illustration but, at least, Dioscorides has corrected such errors as confusing Euphorbia with Camellia, or thinking Aloe was a mineral which he says other writers have done because they have not themselves travelled and seen the things they described.
 
As a much travelled man, Dioscorides is able to claim that ‘the man who will observe his herbs oftentimes and in divers places, will acquire the greatest knowledge of them’.

Hellebore. Some common names are mainly species specific so H. foetidus is stinking hellebore, H. niger is Christmas rose, H. odorus is fragrant hellebore and sweet hellebore, H. orientalis is the lenten rose, H. purpurascens is purple hellebore and H. viridis is green hellebore but there is some cross over.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Contains glycosides variously named helleborin(e), helleborein(e) and helleborigenin(e). In common with many of the buttercup family, hellebores also contain protoanemonin in varying amounts according to the species.

The roots of all Helleborus are strongly emetic and potentially fatal. It was sometimes used to cause vomiting after poisoning which is now known to be harmful. Some varieties were used to treat worms in children the idea being to expel the worms by vomiting. Some varieties of worm remain in the stomach so this treatment may have been successful in those cases. Where the worms had moved to the gut, however, it would seem that the dose would be repeated and increased possibly resulting in the death of the child.

It is also said to produce diarrhoea and have caused cardiac problems.

Though it is usually said that prolonged skin contact may cause burning, a visitor to this site reported her own experience of suffering burning from quite brief contact. More details are given in the 'Incidents' section.

Incidents

No modern incidents of poisoning by ingestion.

Two cases of skin burns following prolonged handling of a hellebore in order to extract the seeds have been reported.

Helleborus, hellebore

In May 2010, a visitor to this site reported suffering unpleasant burning as the result of 'sitting on a few almost ripe seedpods of Helleborus foetidus, the effects of which passed through two layers of clothing'. Like all members of the Ranunculaceae, hellebores contain protoanemonin which is known to cause skin problems. These have only ever been reported when someone has handled the seeds with bare hands. The normal advice is to wear gloves so the fact that this injury occurred through clothing makes it very unusual and very interesting. The seeds had been collected whilst away from home and were in the driver's back pocket as he drove for two and a half hours. It may be that the time, the heat and the pressure caused the juice of the seedpod to reach the flesh.

The photograph of the resulting blisters shows how just how uncomfortable the experience must have been.

Blisters from hellebore seeds

 

Folklore and Facts

Dioscorides said it was called Melampodium after a goatherd called Melampus who gave it to Proteus’ daughters to purge them and, thus, cure them of madness.

Both Dioscorides and Pliny say that if an eagle sees you digging up a hellebore he will cause your death. Pliny adds the need to draw a circle round the plant, face East and offer a prayer before digging it up.

It was not to be used on cloudy days and should not be given to the very young, the old or the effeminate.

Helleborus niger, Christmas rose

Helleborus niger, Christmas rose

In American Medicinal Plants, Charles F. Millspaugh says all hellebores share the same effects on the body but he ranks the different species in terms of the ‘strength’ of their poisonous effects. He says H. niger and H. foetidus are the most suitable for medicinal use being the least poisonous. H. viridis is not much used medicinally because of its greater strength but H. orientalis is the strongest.

In fact, H. niger contains far higher levels of protoanemonin than H. viridis.

Though most of the stories and properties apply to all the species in the genus, the H. niger has a unique property making it very popular with busy people who need a few moments undisturbed. Spread the powdered root onto the floor and when you step on the powder you become invisible.

With most plant folklore it is possible to work back to what was intended. Keeping children away from Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, by telling them it belongs to the devil or saying that Mandragora officinarum, mandrake, emits a lethal scream to deter thieves are two examples. Try as I might, I cannot find a logical explanation for the notion that stepping on the Christmas rose makes one invisible.

That story about invisibility seems to originate with the ever unreliable Mrs Grieve. In 'A Modern Herbal' she says ‘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 change from scattering in the air to spreading on the ground illustrates how folklore mutates.