The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Veratrum album Linnaeus

 

White Hellebore

 

Family

 

Liliaceae (Lily Family; previously Melanthiaceae)

Forms and Subspecies

 

The American hellebore is sometimes regarded as a distinct species but more recently has been considered a subspecies of white hellebore (Roth et al. 1994, 725*):

 

Veratrum album L. ssp. viride Ait.

Veratrum album L. var. viride Baker

Synonyms

 

Veratrum viride Baker

Folk Names

 

Brechwurz, condision, elabro bianco (Italian), elleborus albus, European white hellebore, false hellebore, fieberstellwurzel, gärwere, gentiana maior, germander, germar, germara, germâra, germaren, germarrun vel hemerun, germer, germerra, germerwurzel, gonos aetou (Greek, “eagle’s chest” or “summer bird child”), heimwurz, helleboros leukos, helleborus albus, hemer, hemera, hemerum, kondochi, kundush (Persian), lagnion (Gaulish, “physician plant”), langwort, läusekraut, lüppwurzel, marsithila (“seat of a sea demon”), melampodium, nieskraut, nieswurz, politizon, rumex albus, scamphonie, schampanierwurtzel, sichterwurtz alba, sitterwurz, sittirwurz, süttirwurz, somphia (Egyptian), veladro, vératre blanc (French), veratro bianco (Italian), weiß nießwurtz, weiße nieswurz, weißer germer, white-flowered veratrum, white hellebore, winterwurz, wis nisworz, wiswurz, witte nieswortel (Dutch)

History

 

According to Theophrastus, the two types of helleboros, black hellebore (Helleborus niger L.) and white hellebore (Veratrum album), were the most important of all medicinal plants in prehistoric Greece. They were the central medicines of the rhizotomes, diggers who nourished the magical plants with shamanic rituals. Hellebore was a sacred plant of the gods. The name helleboros may be derived from hella-bora,“food of Helle.” Helle was a Pelasgian goddess for whom the Hellespont was named (Graves 1948, 440*). The most important mode of application of the root was nasally, as snuff. The artificially induced sneezing (the German name nieswurz means “sneezing root”) was believed to cause the demons of sickness to leave the body. “The white sneezing plant, which very quickly produces sneezing, is best; but it is much more terrible than the black [Helleborus niger L.]” (Pliny 25.23, 56).

The plant’s use as a sneezing powder has continued into the present day, although it has become increasingly profane. White hellebore is now mixed into Schneeberger Schnupftabak (Snow Mountain Snuff), which is used as an agent of pleasure (Höfler 2990, 85*; Schneider 1974, 3:386*). The root has been used as a sneezing powder in pranks, e.g., on New Year’s Eve (cf. Calliandra anomala). White hellebore has some significance as a psychoactive substance in occultism (Werner 1991, 469*).

 

“We ate poisonous fungi and Veratrum album as well; the herbage of the white hellebore.

All of them the faces of night!

I wanted to call it out loud and could not.

I wanted to go to the side and could not.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Albine Veretrine turned around to me once more

And made an obscene gesture.

I wanted to turn my eyes to the side or

Close my eyelids

And could not . . .”

GUSTAV MEYRINK

 

“BAL MACABRE”

 

IN DES DEUTSCHEN SPIEßERS WUNDERHORN 1 [THE GERMAN PHILISTINE’S MAGIC HORN] (1984, 63*)

 

 

The typical wild form of white hellebore (Veratrum album) with white flowers. (Wild plant, photographed on Weissenstein, Jura, Switzerland)

 

 

A green-flowering form of the alpine Veratrum album. (Wild plant, photographed in Valais, Switzerland)

 

 

The rootstock of white hellebore (Veratrum album) is rich in highly active substances.

 

 

Infructescence of the American hellebore (Veratrum album ssp. viride = Veratrum viride).

 

Distribution

 

The plant occurs throughout Eurasia, especially in the Alps, the Pyrenees, central Asia, Scandinavia, Finland, Siberia, North America, and Alaska. The plant is frequently encountered among tall herbaceous vegetation, in mountain meadows, and in clearings. In Switzerland, white hellebore is part of the typical flora of the Jura.

Cultivation

 

Propagation can be performed with the seeds or with scions or root segments. The plant loves calciferous soils and also does well in humus- and nutrient-rich soil.

Appearance

 

This herbaceous perennial can attain a height of up to 1.5 meters. It has a straight, thick, round, fleshy stalk to which the broad, ovate, continuous, alternate leaves (25 to 30 cm long) are directly attached. The plant has a cylindrical rootstock from which numerous fleshy albeit thin roots as long as 20 cm develop. The green or white flowers are only 1 cm in size and are found in thick terminal panicles. The flowering period usually lasts from June to August. The fruits are small, brown, roundish capsules that are filled with seeds.

White hellebore can be easily confused with the closely related North American species or subspecies Veratrum viride Ait. The plant also can be taken for the toxic yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea L.), although it can be distinguished by the arrangement of the leaves: white hellebore has three leaves at each stem attachment, while the gentian has decussate leaves that are streaked with numerous leaf nerves and whose footstalks become shorter toward the top (Pahlow 1993, 122*).

White hellebore is also easily confused with the West Indian sabadilla (Schoenocaulon officinale [Cham. Et Schlecht.] A. Gray [syn. Veratrum sabadilla]) (cf. Pereira 1849, 111*; Wolters 1996, 230*).

Psychoactive Material

 

—Rootstock with roots; rhizome (rhizoma vera-tri alba, radix veratri albi, veratri albi rhizome, germerwurzel, weiße nieswurzel, radix ellobori albi, radix campanica, white hellebore root)

—Leaves (folia veratri albi, germerblätter, nieswurzblätter, white hellebore leaves)

Preparation and Dosage

 

The roots of wild plants are collected in September or October, dried well, and powdered. Together with Nicotiana tabacum, the root powder is one of the ingredients in Schneeberger Schnupftabak, a modern European snuff.316

The dried leaves can be smoked alone or used as an ingredient in kinnikinnick or other smoking blends. For psychoactive purposes, white hellebore roots also appear to work well in combination with Amanita muscaria(Meyrink 1984*)

The root has been (accidentally) used to distill a “gentian liquor” (cf. alcohol) (Hruby et al. 1981), the effects of which can be devastating (Roth et al. 1994, 723*).

It has been suggested that white hellebore may have been an ingredient in witches’ ointments. In early modern times, it was used as an inebriating additive to beer, and possibly to mead and wine as well.

Casual use of Veratrum album is very dangerous! One to 2 g of the dried root can be sufficient to cause death through respiratory and circulatory paralysis (Frohne and Pfänder 1983, 153*; Roth et al. 1994, 723*). No information is available about smoking dosages.

Ritual Use

 

The Greeks and Romans used white hellebore, which was dug up in a ritual similar to that used for Mandragora officinarum, as a ritual cleansing agent that was not only snuffed but also strewn about in houses and hearths (Höfler 1990, 82*).

The prophets and magicians of late antiquity called the plant the “seed of Hercules” (Dioscorides 4.148), thereby associating it with the semi-divine sperm. Unfortunately, only vague information about its magical uses has come down to us. Apparently, the “prophets and magicians” referred to in the sources were Celtic Druids. In late antiquity, Herakles/Hercules enjoyed great popularity in Gaul, becoming an object of Celtic mythology and consecration rituals (Botheroyd 1992, 157). This may have been the reason why hellebore branches were hung on houses as an apotropaic protection. It is certain that the Gauls used the root as an arrow poison (Pliny 25.25, 61).

 

Botanical illustration of the white hellebore (Veratrum album). (Engraving from Pereira, De Beginselen der Materia Medica en der Therapie, 1849)

 

It is possible that the Celts used white hellebore for psychoactive purposes. The Celtic mother goddess Cerridwen, who was related to Demeter, or Ceres, was said to know the secret of the “drink of inspiration and all wisdom.” Anyone who partook of it attained enlightenment and was able to experience the past, present, and future as one (cf. mead). The mythically and ritually significant “cauldron of Cerridwen”317 contained “probably a mash of barley, acorns, honey, bull’s blood, and such sacred herbs as ivy [Hedera helix], white hellebore and laurel [Laurus nobilis]” (Graves 1948, 439 f.*).

Honey mead was brewed in a cauldron for the “festival of the other world,” which was strikingly shamanic (Botheroyd 1992, 182). It appears as though the intention of this ritual was to journey into the other world through the aid of the drink, for it is “the fount of all wisdom; here is where the heroes learned their magical arts, the poets obtained inspiration, and the Druids their magic with which they cast spells in the real world. Here too was where the wondrous treasure was guarded that the brave wished to raise: here dwelled absolute reality” (Botheroyd 1992, 18).

The Germanic name for the plant, germâr, is “probably the name of a old Germanic hero known for his use of the spear” (Höfler 1990, 84*). The Germanic tribes regarded the root as a marrensitz, i.e., as a place where elves would dwell (Höfler 1990, 85*). The ancient Germans may have used the plant to travel into other worlds where they could contact the elves, both the light elves in the heavens and the dark elves in the earth. It is possible that white hellebore was inhaled or smoked in the form of incense during the Germanic period, a use that continued into the late nineteenth century (Werner 1991, 468 f.*): “In Tyrolia, dried leaves of white hellebore are smoked from time to time” (Höfler 1990, 84*).

The Flathead Indians knew the North American hellebore (Veratrum viride) by the name steso’o, “sneeze,” and used the powdered root as a snuff that would induce sneezing and thereby clear the respiratory tract (Hart 1979, 273*). The dried roots were smoked together with tobacco (Nicotiana spp.) or bearberry leaves (see kinnikinnick). The Blackfeet call the closely related Veratrum eschscholtzii A. Gray etarva-asi, “that which makes you sneeze,” and snuff the dried and powdered root as a headache remedy (Johnston 1970, 309*). In the Pacific Northwest, the Quinault call the North American hellebore tcî’ai´nix, while the Cowlitz Indians call it mimu´n,318 and the plant appears to have had a certain significance in shamanism. It is said that a small piece of the root was chewed, and the resulting saliva was spat onto the water “to make sea monsters disappear” (Gunther 1988, 24*)!

Artifacts

 

Although helleboros was of great importance in ancient Greece, it does not appear in Greek art. Similarly, no snuff paraphernalia has been discovered or even described.

White hellebore inspired the author Gustav Meyrink (1868–1932) to several pieces of literature (Meyrink 1984*). In the French comic series The Smurfs, by Peyo, Papa Smurf is constantly preparing magical drinks from white hellebore. The drawings in which the effects of these alchemical brews are shown are both turbulent and amusing (cf. Cannabis indica).

Medicinal Use

 

In ancient times, white hellebore was used medicinally to treat a number of afflictions, especially those of a psychological nature:

 

The body must be prepared beforehand for seven days by spicy food and abstention from wine, on the fourth and third day through vomiting, on the day preceding through fasting. White hellebore is also given in something sweet but is best in lentils or in a mush. . . . The emptying begins after about four hours; the entire treatment is over in seven hours. In this manner, white hellebore heals epilepsy, . . . dizziness, melancholy, insanity, possession, white elephantiasis, leprosy, tetanus, tremors, foot gout, dropsy, incipient tympanic water, stomach weakness, charley horse, hip pains, four-day fever, if this will not disappear in any other way, persistent coughing, flatulence, and recurrent stomachaches. (Pliny 25.24, 59 f.)

 

Hildegard of Bingen made similar use of white hellebore: “The white sichterwurtz dispels, when mixed with wild thyme [Thymus pulegioides L.] and fennel [Foeniculum vulgare] and fat . . . , even madness in a man” (Physica1.130). The ancient Germans also used the root to induce abortions (Höfler 1990, 84*).

In Persia (Iran), the fresh root is used to produce a paste that is applied externally to relieve headaches and neuralgia (Hooper 1937, 183*). In Russian folk medicine, the root was administered to children in honey as an anthelmintic (Rowell 1978, 265*). White hellebore was used both internally and externally in the folk medicine of the Alpine countries, and for both humans and animals. Ointments, poultices, and washings with extracts of white hellebore were used externally to treat scabies, lice, psoriasis, and other skin diseases. The root powder was used internally for melancholy (= depression), asthma, dropsy, paralysis, rheumatism, and fever (Pahlow 1993, 242*).

 

White hellebore (Veratrum album) is also known as the “white sneezing plant,” even though it is not related to the true sneezing plant (Helleborus). In earlier times, two forms were distinguished and were referred to as the “male” and the “female.” (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)

 

“Sneezing plant put in the nose cleanses the brain and makes one sneeze.”

 

LEONARD FUCHS KREÜTTERBUCH [HERBAL] (1543, CH. 103)

 

“The white sneezing plant is important in magic as a narcotic agent much used for fumigations and witches’ ointments.”

 

HELMUT WERNER

 

LEXIKON DER ESOTERIK [DICTIONARY OF THE ESOTERIC] (1991, 469*)

 

In homeopathic medicine, a tincture obtained from the dried rootstock (Veratrum—White Hellebore) is used in D3 and above in accordance with the medical description for such afflictions as mood disorders, depression, and the consequences of fright, anger, and migraines (Pahlow 1993, 242*; Schneider 1974, 3:386*).

Constituents

 

The entire plant contains steroid and steroidlike alkaloids with a C27 steroid framework (protoverine, jervine, protoveratrine, germerine, pseudo-jervine, veratrosine, O-acetyljervine, jervinone, 1-hydroxy-5,6-dihydrojervine) (Attar-ur-Rahman et al. 1993; Morton 1977, 63*). The root has an alkaloid content of 1.2 to 1.6% and the leaf bases 0.9 to 1.5%. Three ester alkaloids are considered to be the main active constituents: protoveratrine A, protoveratrine B, and germerine. The alkaloid content of the plant can vary considerably depending upon location and altitude. A basic rule is that the higher the altitude in which the plant occurs, the lower its alkaloid concentration (Roth et al. 1994, 723*).

In addition to the alkaloids, the plant contains the glycoside veratramine, chelidonic acid, veratrum acid, and fat (Morton 1977, 63*). White hellebore is very toxic. As little as 1 to 2 g of dried root (corresponding to approximately 20 mg of the ester alkaloids) can be lethal.

Effects

 

Because Veratrum album suppresses the sympathetic centers and induces a serious drop in blood pressure, use of the plant can easily result in coma (Attar-ur-Rahman et al. 1993; Frohne and Pfänder 1983, 152*). Typical symptoms include burning and tingling in the throat, followed by sensations of numbness and formication (similar to the symptoms produced by Aconitum; cf. Aconitum napellus). Patients remain conscious until they collapse and death occurs, although hallucinations also occur (Hruby et al. 1981). The toxicological literature contains a description of one case in which a thirteen-year-old boy smoked the dried leaves as “tobacco”; the only symptom reported was diarrhea, which persisted for a week (Roth et al. 1994, 723*).

Commercial Forms and Regulations

 

White hellebore can be obtained only in homeopathic dilutions from pharmacies. Pharmacologically active preparations are not available. The laws regulating games and practical joke articles prohibit preparations of sneezing powder that contain Veratrum album (Roth et al. 1994, 723*).

Literature

 

See also the entries for beerwitches’ ointments, and snuffs.

 

Attar-ur-Rahman, Rahat Azhar Ali, Anwar-ul-Hassan Gilani, M. Iqbal Choudhary, Khalid Aftab, Bilge Sener, and Songol Turkoz 1993. Isolation of antihypertensive alkaloids from the rhizomes of Veratrum albumPlanta Medica 59:569–71.

 

Botheroyd, Sylvia, and Paul F. 1992. Lexikon der keltischen Mythologie. Munich: Diederichs.

 

Hruby, K., K. Lenz, and J. Krausler. 1981. Vergiftungen mit Veratrum album (weißer Germer). Wiener Klinische Wochenschrift 93 (16): 517–19.

 

Kaneko, K., M. Wataname, S. Taira, and H. Mitsuhashi. 1972. Conversion of solanidin to jerveratrum alkaloids in Veratrum grandiflorumPhytochemistry 11:3199–202.

 

 

Protoveratrine A

 

 

A very closely related species (or subspecies, variety?) of the white hellebore (Veratrum sabadilla) grows in Mexico and in the Antilles. Research is needed to determine whether this plant has psychoactive effects and has ever been used for psychoactive purposes. (Engraving from Pereira, De Beginselen der Materia Medica en der Therapie, 1849)