Helleborus niger. Black Hellebore.
Nat. Ord. — Ranunculaceae. Sex. Syst. — Polyandria Polygynia.
Description. — Black hellebore has a black, perennial, tuberculated, horizontal, scaly root or rhizoma, whitish internally, and sending off numerous, long, fleshy, brownish-yellow fibers, which become dark-brown upon drying. The leaves are large, radical, on cylindrical peduncles from four to eight inches long, pedate, of a deep green color above, paler and strongly reticulated beneath ; the leaflets are five or more, one terminal, two to four on each side supported on a single partial petiole, ovate-lanceolate, smooth, shining, coriaceous, and serrated near the top. The scape is shorter than the petiole, one or two-flowered, with ovate lacerated bracts immediately beneath the calyx, six or eight inches high, round, tapering, and reddish toward the base. The flowers are large, rose-like ; the petaloid calyx consists of five large, ovate or roundish, concave, spreading sepals, at first white, then rose-red, and eventually becoming green. The petals are tubercular and two-lipped, of a greenish-yellow color, and shorter than the stamens. The stamens are very numerous and support yellow anthers. The ovaries are from six to eight in number, surmounted by a somewhat curved pistil. The capsules contain many black, shining seeds.
History. — Black Hellebore is a native of the mountainous regions of southern and temperate Europe, and is found in Greece, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, and Spain. It is cultivated in many places, on account of its flowers appearing in winter, between December and February, on which account it is called the Christmas Rose. It is not the Melampodium of the ancients, so celebrated in mental diseases, which is now shown to be a distinct species, the Helleborus Orientalis, and which probably possesses similar medicinal virtues, as well as the roots of some other species of the same genus.
The whole root is generally kept in the shops, though the fibers are the only parts employed. It is a many-headed root, with a caudex or body seldom over half an inch in thickness, and several inches long, horizontal, sometimes contorted, uneven, knotty, with transverse ridges, slightly striated longitudinally, its upper surface having the remains of the leaf and flower-stalks, and thickly beset upon the sides and under-surface with fibers about as thick as a straw, and which when not broken, are from four to twelve inches long, smooth, brittle, externally black or deep-brown, internally white or yellowish-white, spongy, with a feeble odor, and a taste at first sweetish, then nauseously acrid and biting, but not very durable, and bitterish. At from two to six inches from their origin, they are furnished with small, slender branches. When fresh they are extremely powerful, producing when chewed and retained for a time upon the tongue, a burning and benumbing impression, like that caused by taking hot liquids into the mouth. Drying diminishes this acrimony, which becomes gradually weakened by age. Water or alcohol extracts its virtues, which are impaired by long boiling. Analysis has found in these fibers, a volatile oil, an acrid fixed oil, a resinous substance, wax, a volatile acid, bitter extractive, gum, albumen, gallate of potassa, supergallate of lime, a salt of ammonia, and woody fiber. Its acridity is supposed to depend on the volatile acid, while its purgative qualities are attributed to the resinous substance, from the fact that alcohol extracts the medicinal virtues of the fibers most effectually.
Properties and Uses. — In large doses a powerful poison, causing gastrointestinal inflammation, vomiting, purging, vertigo, cramp, convulsions and even death. Applied to the skin, the fresh root inflames and even vesicates. In medicinal doses, a drastic cathartic, diuretic, anthelmintic and emmenagogue. Formerly used in palsy, insanity, apoplexy, dropsy, epilepsy, etc., but seldom used at present; occasionally it is found useful in chlorosis, amenorrhea, etc. Dose of the powder, from five to ten grains; of the tincture, from one to two fluidrachms ; of the extract, from two to five grains.
The Helleborus Foetidus or Bear's foot, possesses similar properties, but is scarcely known in this country. It has been used in asthma, hysteria, and for the removal of tapeworm, in powder or decoction.
Off. Prep. — Vinum Haematoxyli Compositum.