This is quite a common plant in many parts of the United States, particularly in the eastern states, where it grows in swampy places, wet meadows, and along the borders of streams. It is usually well known to the people in sections where it is found, who call it itch-weed, Indian poke, poke-root, (A name universally employed for phytolacca decandra.) or American hellebore, swamp hellebore, etc. The earliest travelers made mention of it. Josselyn (345) records that it was used as an ordeal test by the American Indians, somewhat on the same order as the ordeals by the negroes of Africa at the present day. He supposed it was the same as Veratrum album of Europe, and notes its abundance, stating "that you may in a small compass gather whole cart-loads of it."
Peter Kalm (350) states that it is very common in marshy places and frequently causes the death of stock which eat the young leaves in spring; also that the settlers employed a decoction of the root to poison the seed-corn, to prevent the birds from eating it; (The statement being that the marauding birds were sickened and did not return.) and also that the root was used as an insecticide.
According to Loudon the plant was introduced into Europe in 1742, though most authorities ascribe to Peter Collinson its introduction in 1763 (8). It was named and described in the first edition of Alton's Hortus Kewensis (vol. 3, p. 422, 1789) as Veratrum viride, and Alton by most writers is given as the author of the name. In justice, however, the credit should be given to William Solander, an English botanist and illustrious pupil of Linnaeus, who (although no mention of the fact is made in the publication) furnished the descriptions and nomenclature of the new species described in Aiton's work. (Dictionary of National Biography. "Aiton, Wm." New York, 1885 to date.)
Veratrum viride is conceded by all modern botanists to be a distinct species; it is so close, however, to Veratrum album of Europe that the early explorers of America and some of the earlier botanists and travelers—Michaux (433) (Flor. bor. am., Vol. II, p. 249), Josselyn (345), Kalm (350), David Schopf (582)—thought it was the same species. Certainly the rhizomes of both plants bear a close resemblance to each other, even in their microscopical aspects. (E. S. Baslin, Am. Jour. Phar., 1895, p. 196.)
The History of the Vegetable Drugs of the U.S.P., 1911, was written by John Uri Lloyd.