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Veratrum album, white hellebore
For all those who find it hard to believe that just smelling some flowers can be harmful.
Read more about Veratrum album, white hellebore, in these blog entries;
A 'new' paper about Alexander's death, but is there anything new in it?'
A Remembrance Day look at plants associated with war and soldiers
Different theories for what killed Alexander the Great
Liliaceae but formerly placed in Melanthiaceae
Meaning of the Name
From the Latin ‘vere’, ‘true’, ‘real’, ‘truly’ plus ‘ater’, ‘black’ from the very black colour of the roots.
Common Names and Synonyms
white hellebore, sneezewort.
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
It contains at least 20 steroidal alkaloids, known as Veratrum alkaloids, including proveratrine, protoveratrine, veratramine, veratradine, cevadine and jervine.
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Of these protoveratrine has been shown to reduce oxygen in the blood and lead to breathing problems, and jervine can cause cyclopia where a feotus has only a single eye in the centre of the forehead.
There are a few cases of Veratrum poisoning in the literature. Typically, symptoms are nausea, repeated vomiting, drowsiness, dizziness, salivation, dilated pupils and bradycardia. Atropine has been used as a treatment in order to combat the bradycardia.
These days, its most harmful property is that it severely damages the nasal passages due to the poison in the aroma. The irritation caused results in sneezing. It was used in sneezing powder until the full extent of the harm was understood. Statutory instrument 2844 of 1994 prohibits its supply for amusement.
At higher doses, sneezing powder has been found to cause more than just sneezing. A 1983 report from a poison control centre in France examined nine cases of poisoning resulting from sneezing powders containing Veratrum alkaloids. In addition to severe sneezing, the children involved suffered gastrointestinal upsets and fainting as a result of bradycardia. The centre contacted the manufacturers and the formulation was changed.
There is a theory that Alexander the Great died because of eating white hellebore when he told his physicians to give it to him to treat diarrhoea. Like the Helleborus spp. it was believed that it should not be given to the young, old or effeminate. Perhaps, Alexander wished to demonstrate that he was capable of taking a strong purgative.
The plant causes diarrhoea but the theory was that, if something in the guts was causing illness, taking a substance which caused diarrhoea would have the effect of purging the problem from the system. The plant may take 10 - 14 days to kill but it is unclear if that means continuous consumption or whether a fatal dose takes that long to have its effect.
Though not one of the ‘mainstream’ poisons, Veratrum album has quite a story of accidental and deliberate death, the most recent being in 2001, in France, when the bodies of two illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe, who had been hiding out in a caravan in a remote part of the country, were recovered from a lake. They were examined and found to have a large number of seeds of Veratrum album in the stomach and detectable effects in the organs. Death was attributable to the plant rather than to drowning but there is no way of knowing whether the plant had been taken intentionally, in a suicide pact, or accidentally, being mistaken for something else, or in the hope that it would have psychoactive properties which have not been shown to be present.
Veratrum californicum, Californian hellebore, has been shown to produce birth defects in sheep, most notably formation of a single eye.
Folklore and Facts
It is listed in Category 'B' on the Horticultural Trades Association list of potentially harmful plants but, for some reason, it is not a plant that many garden centres seem to stock. That is a little surprising given the usual leaf structure creates visual interest from the start of growth. It may be that its reputation has discouraged its cultivation.
Pliny the Elder suggested that care must be taken when gathering
it because it is ‘oppressive to the head’ unless garlic has been
eaten. Scholars have been known to purge themselves with white
hellebore in order to sharpen their brains for study.
He says that the most potent plants are those which most quickly cause sneezing and it is a more terrifying plant than the Helleborus and could produce choking, sleeping, shivering in addition to violent purging which might require the use of an emetic to expel the excess Veratrum. The excessive effects caused physicians to use it in small amounts but Pliny favours using a large dose to get its effects over more quickly.
In American Medicinal Plants, Charles F. Millspaugh notes that in the seventeenth century, Native Americans used the plant as part of the process of finding new tribal chiefs. The contender whose stomach withstood the purgative effect the longest was deemed to be the strongest and, thus, fit to command the rest.