100. Veratrum album. White hellebore, or, Veratrum.

Botanical name: 

100. Veratrum album. 100. Veratrum album. C. Synonyma. Helleborus albus. Pharm. Lond. & Edinb. Gerard Emac. p. 440. Raii Hist. p. 168.
Helleborus Albus, flore subviridi. Bauh. Pin. p. 186.
Helleborus albus vulgaris. Park. Theat. p. 217.
Veratrum flore subviridi. Tournef. Inst. p. 272.
Veratrum spica paniculata, floribus maribus & feminis. Hall. Stirp. Helv. n. 1204.
Veratrum album. Jacq. Flor. Aust. v. iv. t. 335. Mill. Illustr. ic.

Class Polygamia. Ord. Monoecia. Lin. Gen. Plant. 1144.
Ess. Gen. Ch. Hermaphrod. Cal. o. 6-petala. Stam. 6. Pist. 3. Caps. 3, polyspermae.
Masc. Cal. o. Cor. 6-petala. Stam. 6. Pist. rudimentum.
Spec. Char. V. racemo supradecomposito, corollis erectis.

The root is perennial, about an inch thick, externally brown, internally white, and beset with many strong fibres: the stalk is thick, strong, round, upright, hairy, and usually rises four feet in height: the leaves are numerous, very large, oval, entire, ribbed, plaited, without footstalks, of a yellowish green colour, and surround the stem at its base: the flowers are both hermaphrodite and male, of a greenish colour, and appear from June to August, in very long branched terminal spikes: the hermaphrodite flowers are without calyces: the corolla consists of six petals, which are oblong, or lance-shaped, veined, persistent, of a pale green colour: the filaments are six, closely surrounding the germens, shorter than the corolla, and terminated by quadrangular antherae: the germens are three in each flower, erect, oblong, ending in short hairy styles, which are crowned with flat spreading stigmata: the capsules are three, oblong, compressed, erect, two-celled, opening inwardly, and containing many oblong compressed membranous seeds. The male flowers differ from these only in wanting the germens.

This plant is a native of Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Russia: its first cultivation in this country is ascribed to Gerard, and of course was previous to the year 1596.

The (greek) of the Greek writers is by many supposed to be our Helleborus albus; but this opinion, like many others respecting the identity of the ancient nomenclature of plants with that of the modern, seems drawn rather from the similarity of their effects upon the body, than from an agreement in their botanical descriptions. This will evidently appear upon comparing the plant here figured with the description given by Dioscorides: ["Helleborus albus folia fert Plantaginis aut Betae sylvestris similia, sed breviora, nigriora, & dorso rubescentia: causem palmi altitudine, concavum; qui quidem tunicas cuibus convolvitur abdicat cum arescere incipit. Radices subjacent numerosae, tenues ac fibratae, ab exiguo & oblongo capitulo, ceu caepa, exeuntes, eidemque annexae. Nascitur in montosis & asperis," Dioscorid. M. M. L. iv. c. 150. This description of the plant, though imperfect, is the only one given by the ancients.] and yet Geoffroy says, "Apud Dioscoridem hellebori albi descriptio, veratro albo nostro satis apte convenit." [Mat. Med. vol. ii. p. 63.]

The (greek), or famous Anticyran Hellebore, ["Naviget Anticyram." — Danda est hellebori multo pars maxima avaris: / Necio, an Anticyram ratio illis deftinet omnem. Hor. Sat. Lib. ii. v. 82. It is said that both the white and black hellebore grew at Anticyra, but the latter was accounted safer, and therefore more commonly employed. Pausanias, Lib. x. p. 623.] is likewise thought to be the Helleborus niger of Linnaeus, an account of which has been given at page 50; but the descriptions of the former by the ancients are so vague that their identity is equally doubtful; [Though Tournefort says, "Nous connumes deux Herboristes a Pruse, l'un Emir & l'autre Armenien, qui passoient pour de grands Docteurs. Us nous fournirent des racines du veritable Ellebore noir des anciens, autant que nous voulumes pour en faire l'extrait. C'est la meme espece que celle des Anticyres & des cotes de la Mer Noir." See his account of Mount Olympus. Voyage du Levant. But his description of the plant differs widely from that of our Helleborus niger.] the application therefore of what has formerly been said of the Hellebores of the Greeks to those known to us, can only be admitted but as a matter of probability.

Hippocrates frequently mentions Hellebore simply, or generically, by which we are told the white is to be understood, as he adds the word black or purging when the other species is meant; and as the purgative powers of Veratrum are known to be weaker than those of hellebore niger, the distinction is so far applicable to the effects now experienced of the roots of our Hellebores. It appears from various instances, that not only the roots of white Hellebore but that every part of the plant is extremely acrid and poisonous, as its leaves and even seeds proved deleterious to different animals. [See Pallas, Russ. Reise, vol. i. p. 49. Kalm's N. Amer. tom. iii. p. 48. Gunner, Fl. Norveg. P. ii. p. 2. For the poisonous effects of the roots, when applied to wounds of different animals, Vide Phil. Trans. vol. xlvii. p. 82.] The dried root has no peculiar smell, but a durable nauseous acrid bitterish taste, burning the mouth and fauces; when powdered and applied to issues or ulcers it produces griping and purging; if snuffed up the nose it proves a violent sternutatory. Gesner made an infusion of half an ounce of this root with two ounces of water, of this he took two drams, which produced great heat about the scapulae, and in the face and head, as well as the tongue and throat, followed with singultus, which continued till vomiting was excited. [Epist. Med. p. 69.] Bergius also experienced very distressing symptoms merely by tasting this infusion. [M. M. p. 819.] The root, taken in large doses, discovers such acrimony, and operates upwards and downwards with such violence that blood is usually discharged: [Ettmuller. Oper. tom. ii. P. 2. p. 435.] it likewise acts very powerfully upon the nervous system, producing great anxiety, tremors, vertigo, syncope, loss of voice, interrupted respiration, sinking of the pulse, convulsions, spasms, cold sweats, &c. [Wepser, de Gent, p. 48. Lorry de Melanch. ii. p. 313. Borrich. Act. Haf. vol. vi. p. 145. Albert. Jurisprud. Med. vol. vi. p. 718. Bresl. Samml. 1724. P. 2. p. 269. p. 537. Act. Berol. Dec. 2. vol. 6. Misc. Nat. Cur. Dec. 2. Ann. 2. p. 239.] Upon opening those who have died by the effects of this poison, the stomach discovered marks of inflammation, with corrosions of its interior coat, and the lungs have been found inflamed, and their vessels much distended with dark blood. [Act. Berol. cit. Misc. Nat. Cur. cit. Bergius says, "Ego vix a memet impetrare potero, ut radicis, ita intense venenatae, usum internum cuiquam suasurus sim, nisi summa adhibita circumspicientia; etenim constat, eam, in satis parca dosi propinatam, saepe horrenda symptomata excitasse, ut sitim, cardialgiam, tormina, singultum, suffocationes, convulsiones, tremores, inflammationem primarum viarum, lipothymias, sudorem frigidum, immo & mortem." l. c.]

The ancients, though sufficiently acquainted with the virulency of their white Hellebore, were not deterred from employing it internally in several diseases, especially those of a chronic and obstinate kind, as mania, melancholia, hydrops, elephantiasis, epilepsia, vitiligo, lepra, rabies canina, &c. they considered it the safer when it excited vomiting, and Hippocrates wished this to be its first effect. To those of weak constitutions, as women, children, old men, and those labouring under pulmonary complaints, its exhibition was deemed unsafe; and even when given to the robust it was thought necessary to moderate its violence by different combinations and preparations; for it was frequently observed to effect a cure not only by its immediate action upon the primae viae, but when no sensible evacuations was promoted by its use. [Hippocr. (greek) in Oper. ed. Lind. tom. i. p. 610. Et Aphorism. Sect. iv. Aph. 13-16.]

Similar observations have been made of Veratrum by authors of later times: Mayerne [Prax. Med. Lib. i. c. 7. p. 69. sq.] gave from two to three grains of an extract of this root with considerable advantage in maniacal cases, where no remarkable evacuation took place; and Con. Gesner, [He says, "non ad purgandum, sed ad reserandos meatus & crassos humores attenuandum, eosque a centro & interioribus corporis ad superficiem & vias excretionum variarum educendum." Adding, " recreat & roberat, & hilariorem facit, & acuit ingenium: quod in me & aliis saepissime expertus scribo." Had Gesner lived long enough, he had still more to say on this subject. "Ego, si vixero, in Ellebori historia multa proferam, quae medici admirentur." l. c.] who investigated the qualities of Veratrum by repeated experiments, and whose encomiums on its efficacy seemed for a while to restore it to the ancient character of Hellebore, expressly declares, that he did not give it as an evacuant, but to produce the more gradual effects of those medicines termed alteratives. Gesner's account of Veratrum was followed by those of several other authors, [Hannemann, Quercetanus, Screta, Wepser, Muralto, Linder.] in which it is said to have been serviceable in various chronic diseases. But the fullest trial which seems to have been lately made of the efficacy of Veratrum is by Greding, [Vermischte Med. u. chirurg. Schriften. Altenb. 1781. to p. 30. Wendt relates a case of mania, brought on by taking pepper and spirits of wine as a remedy for the ague; the disease continued thirty-three weeks, when it was said to have been cured by a decoction of white hellebore; but as copious and repeated bleedings, with other means, were employed, the cure cannot wholly be ascribed to the hellebore. See Agassiz. Diss. de therapia mania. Erl. 1785. p. 37.] who employed it in a great number of cases, (twenty-eight) of the maniacal and melancholic kind; the majority of these, as might be expected, derived no permanent benefit; several however were relieved, and five completely cured by this medicine. It was the bark of the root, collected in the spring, which he gave in powder, beginning with one grain: this dose was gradually increased according to its effects. With some patients one or two grains excited nausea and vomiting, but generally eight grains were required to produce this effect, though in a few instances a scruple, and even more, was given. We may also remark, that he sometimes used the extract prepared after Stoerck's manner.—In almost every case which he relates, the medicine acted more or less upon all the excretions: vomiting and purging were very generally produced, and the matter thrown off the stomach was constantly mixed with bile; a florid redness frequently appeared on the face, and various cutaneous efflorescences upon the body; and, in some pleuretic, symptoms with fever supervened, so as to require bleeding, nor were the more alarming affections of spasms and convulsions unfrequent. Critical evacuations, we are told, were often very evident, many sweated profusely, in some the urine was considerably increased, in others the saliva and the mucous discharges: also uterine obstructions, of long continuance, were often removed by this drug.

Veratrum has likewise been found useful in epilepsy, and other convulsive complaints, [Greding, l. c. See also Smyth in Medical Communications, vol. i. p. 207.] but the diseases in which its efficacy seems lead equivocal, are those of the skin, [Its success in these complaints is mentioned both by the ancient and modern writers. Smyth relates three cases. See l. c. The Veratrum nigrum of Lin. or Helleborus albus flore atro-rubente of C. Bauh. is said to produce the same effects as the Veratrum album. See Lorry, de melanch. tom. ii. p. 289. & Linnaeus, Amoen. Acad. vol. ix. p. 261. Helleborus is supposed to be derived (greek) quod esu perimat. Veratrum dicitur quod mentem vertat, or, a verare i. e, vera loqui. V. C. Bauh. l. c.] as scabies and different prurient eruptions, herpes, morbus pediculosus, lepra, scrophula, &c. and in many of these it has been successfully employed both internally and externally.

As a powerful stimulant, and irritating medicine, its use has been resorted to only in desperate cases, and then it is first to be tried in very small doses, in a diluted state, and to be gradually increased, according to the effects.

Medical Botany, 1790-1794, was written by William Woodville, M. D., and illustrated by James Sowerby.