018. Helleborus niger. Black hellebore, or, Christmas rose.
Also see 019. Helleborus foetidus. Fetid hellebore, or, Bear's-foot.
Synonyma. Helleborus Niger, seu Melampodium. Pharm. Lond. & Edin. [A Melampo qui primus purgationem instituit: unde (greek), id est purgator nominatus fuit, & hocce medicamento Proeti filias in furorem actas persanavit. Geoff.]
Helleborus Niger legitimus. Clus. Hist. 274.
Helleborus Niger flore roseo. Bauh. Pin. 186.
Helleborus Niger flore albo; interdum etiam valde rubente. J. Bauh. 3. 635.
Helleborus Niger verus. Gerard's Herb. 975.
True Black Hellebore, or Christmas Flower. Raii. Hist. Plant. 697.
An nostra planta sit (greek) et (greek) Graecor. et Helleborus, Elleborus, Veratrum, Latinorum, nihil certi pronunciari possit.
Class Polyandria. Order Polygynia. L. Gen. Plant. 702.
Ess. Gen. Ch. Cal. o. Petala 5 f. plura. Nectaria bilabiata, tubulata. Caps, polyspermae, erectiusculae.
Spec. Char. H. Scapo subbiflore subnudo, foliis pedatis.
The root is perennial, rough, knotted, and externally of a black colour, internally whitish, sending off many strong round long fibres; the flower stalks are erect, round, tapering, and towards the bottom reddish; the bracteal leaves supply the place of the calyx, and are oval, concave, and generally indented at the top; the petals are five, large, roundish, spreading, at first of a white colour, succeeded by reddish tints, but finally putting on a greenish appearance; the nectaria are about eight in number, tubulated, somewhat compressed, bilabiated, and of a greenish yellow colour; the filaments are white, the anthers yellow; the germina vary, commonly from four to eight, and the capsules, or pods, contain many oval mining blackish seeds; the leaves are compound, divided in a peculiar manner, or pedated, and stand upon long radical footstalks; the simple leaf is elliptical, smooth, thick, and serrated towards the top. This plant is a native of Austria and Italy, and was unknown to the gardens in this country till cultivated by Mr. John Gerard in 1596. If the weather be sufficiently mild, it flowers in January, and hence the name of Christmas Flower.
If any arguments were required to evince the necessity of botanical accuracy in discriminating medicinal plants, the Helleborus Niger would furnish us with many facts on which such arguments might be deduced. For a great number of instances is recorded of the effects of this plant, by which it since appears that other plants were mistaken for it, and actually employed; of these we may enumerate the Helleborus viridis, Adonis vernalis, Trollius europaeus, Actaea spicata, Astrantia major, and Aconitum Napellus; [Probably art, as well as ignorance, had some share in these substitutions; for the particulars of which see Murray's Ap. Med. vol. 3. from p. 44. to p. 50.] and as the roots of these plants possess very different powers, we cannot be surprised that the medical history of this root is not only confused and contradictory, but calculated to produce very mischievous and even fatal consequences.
The taste of the fresh root is bitterish, and somewhat acrid, and according to Grew, "being chewed, and for some time retained upon the tongue, after a few minutes it seemeth to be benumbed, and affected with a kind of paralytic stupor, or as when it has been burnt with eating or supping any thing too hot." [On tastes, vide Anatomy of Plants, p. 283.] It also emits a nauseous acrid smell, but being long kept, both its sensible qualities and medicinal activity suffer very considerable diminution. Bergius has very properly attended to this circumstance, for in defining its virtues he considers it under three different degrees of dryness: [Mat. Med. p. 496.] "Virtus: rec. venenata, rubefaciens, vesicans; recenter sicccatae: emetica, purgans, emmenagoga, antiphthiriaca, sternutatoria; diu conservatae: vix purgans, alterans, diuretica." Although many writers consider this root to be a perfectly innocent and safe medicine, yet we find several proofs of its poisonous effects [Vide Doering De Medicina et Medicis, p. 242. Act. Helv. vol. 5. p. 326. Buchner Diss. de salut. et noxio Ellebori Nigri usu. p. 22. Hildanus Obs. Med. chir. cent. 4. obs. 12. Scopoli Fl. carn. ed. 1. p. 557. Morgagni de sed. & caus. morb. Epist. 59. art. 15. et Act. Helv. l. c. Hartman Vet. Acad. Handl. a 1762. p. 276. Schulz Mat. Med. p. 152.] from which Murray collects the following symptoms:—"Fateor, dispersas hinc inde extare observationes contrarias, querelas moveri de vomitionibus effraenis inde contractis, hypercatharsi, torminibus, anxietate, fiti, singultu, animi deliquiis, sudoribus frigidis, faucium strangulatione, convulsionibus, sternutatione, torpore quodam artuum et insueta rigiditate, inflammatione ventriculi et intestinorum, quin morte pedissequa praeviis variis dictis malis."
It seems to have been principally from its purgative quality that the ancients esteemed this root such a powerful remedy in maniacal disorders, with a view to evacuate the atra bilis, from which these mental diseases were supposed to be produced; but though evacuations be often found necessary in various cases of alienations of mind, yet as they can be procured with more certainty and safety by other medicines, this catholicon of antiquity is now almost entirely abandoned. [Whether our Hellebore be the same species as that said to grow in the island of Anticyra, and about Mount Olympus, so frequently alluded to by the latin poets, is no easy matter to determine. From the accounts of Tournefort and Bellonius, who botanized these places, a species of this plant was found in great plenty, which the former supposes to be the Hellebore of Hippocrates; it differs from the species here figured, by having a large branched stem, and also by its effects, for he found that a scruple of the extract brought on violent spasms and convulsions. Many plants however are known to vary as much by a removal from their native soil and climate.] At present it is looked upon chiefly as an alterative, and in this light is frequently employed in small doses for attenuating viscid humours, promoting the uterine and urinary discharges, and opening inveterate obstructions of the remoter glands: [Duncan's Ed. new. Dispensatory. Lewis's Mat. Med.] it often proves a very powerful emmenagogue in plethoric habits, where steel is ineffectual, or improper. [Mead, (mon. et praec. med. p. 138) speaks of it as the most potent of all emmenagogues; but Home (clin. exper. & hist. p. 386) and Pasta (Dissertaz. mediche sopra i mestrui delle Donne, p. 192) found it often unsuccessful.] It is also recommended in dropsies, [By Avicenna, Gesner, Klein, Milman, and Bacher whose famous tonic pills are thus prepared: Rx Ext. Helleb. Nig. Myrrhae Solutae aa ʒj pulv. Card, bened. ʒ iij M. F. f. a. Massa aëre sicco exsiccanda, donec formandis pilulis apta sit, singul. ad gran, femiss.] and some cutaneous diseases. [In the lepra Graecorum. Vide Aretaeus Oper. ed. Boerh. p. 136. Schmidel Diss. de lepra in Haller's collect. Disp. pract. T. 6. p. 85. And Hildanus mentions the case of a girl who was cured of an obstinate scabies of the face by this extract. l. c.] The watery extract of this root, made after the manner directed in the pharmacopoeias, is one of the best and safest preparations of it, [The irritating power of its active matter being considerably abated by the boiling. Lewis's M. M.] when designed for a cathartic, as it contains both the purgative and diuretic parts of the Hellebore; it may be given in a dose from ten grains to a scruple, or more. A tincture of this drug is also ordered in the pharmacopoeias, which is preferred for the purposes of an alterative and deobstruent; of which a tea-spoonful twice a day may be considered a common dose.