Helleborus. Helleborus niger L. Black Hellebore. Hellebore noir, Fr. Schwarze Niesswurzel, Weihnachtswurzel, Winterrose, Gr. Elleboro nero, It. Eleboro negro, Sp. (Fam. Ranunculaceae).—Hellebore is a native of the mountainous regions of Southern and temperate Europe, and is sometimes cultivated on account of the early opening and beauty of its flowers, whose expansion in midwinter has given to the plant the name of Christmas rose. Black hellebore is sometimes called melampodium, in honor of Melampus, an ancient shepherd or physician, who is said to have cured the daughters of King Prsetus by giving them the milk of goats fed on hellebore. For a history of the use of hellebore by the ancients, see 15th edition, U. S. D.
The formerly official rhizome is knotted, blackish on the outside, white within, and sends off numerous long, simple, depending fibers which are brownish-yellow when fresh, but become dark brown upon drying. The roots of various other plants, not belonging to the same genus, are said to be frequently substituted for the black hellebore. They may usually be readily distinguished by comparing them with the genuine root. The rhizomes of various plants which are sometimes substituted for true hellebore have been examined by Tschirch and Neuber, who state their results as follows:
The rhizome of H. niger exhibits a small pith and comparatively large acutely wedge-shaped, radially-elongated wood-bundles. The odor of the rhizome and roots is slight but rather pleasant, especially in the fresh drug. The rhizome of H. viridis L. has a large pith and tangentially extended, bluntly wedge-shaped or almost square wood-bundles; older roots exhibit a wood with from five to seven-angular wedges. In both rhizome and root of H. foetidus L., the wood is more strongly developed and radiate in appearance; it contains abundance of wood-fibers and encloses little or no pith. The rhizome of Actaea spicata L. is flattened and bears cushion-like protuberances, due to the remains of the aerial stems. The wood-bundles are thickened at either extremity and rounded by wood-fibers, so that in transverse section the wood-ring has a scalariform appearance. The root exhibits a regular three to five-rayed wood, the rays being broader toward the outside. (S. W. P., xl, 410.)
The roots are the portion usually recommended. They are from 0.5 to 6 cm. long and 2 to 3 mm. thick, smooth, brittle, externally black or deep brown, internally white or yellowish-white, with little odor, and a bitterish, nauseous, acrid taste. In their recent state they are extremely acrid. This acridity is diminished by drying, and still further impaired by age. William Bastick discovered a crystalline principle, helleborin, C36H42O6, of a bitter taste with a tingling effect on the tongue, not volatilizable, slightly soluble in water, more so in ether and alcohol, and more readily in these liquids hot than cold. (P. J., xii, 274.) Marme and Husemann obtained from black and green hellebore a glucoside, helleborein, C37H56O18, by precipitating a solution of an extract of the root with solution of lead subacetate, freeing from lead by hydrogen sulphide, and again precipitating with phospho-molybdic acid; by boiling with acid it separated into glucose and helleboretin, C14H20O3, a compound of a fine violet color. The helleborein exists both in the root and leaves. It has a taste at once sweet and bitter, is soluble in water and weak alcohol, much less so in ether and absolute alcohol, and is crystallizable in yellowish rhomboidal prisms. It is precipitable by tannic acid and mercurous acetate. (J. P. C., 4e ser., ii, 258.) Husemann and Marme (Ann. Chem., cxxxv, 61) examined more thoroughly the helleborin of Bastick. They found that when boiled with diluted sulphuric acid, or, better, zinc chloride, it is converted into sugar and helleboresin, C30H38O4. They obtain this glucoside by treating with hot water the green fatty matter which is dissolved out of the root by boiling alcohol. Though both helleborin and helleborein are poisonous, the products of their decomposition are said to be harmless. Neither of them is volatile.
Helleborein is strongly irritant to the mucous membranes, causing, when applied to the conjunctiva, redness, swelling, and increased secretion, with indirect enlargement of the pupil, and when applied to the nasal membrane, sneezing, though less than veratrine. Small doses produce little effect on the stomach; but, repeated and accumulated, they cause anorexia, nausea even to vomiting, pain, increased secretion, and inflammation both of the stomach and bowels. The experiments of Van der Haide (A. E. P. P., 1885, xix), Trendelenburg (A. E. P. P., 1909, lxi, p. 262) and others demonstrate that physiologically helleborein belongs to the digitalis group of drugs. In small doses it diminishes the rate of the pulse, increases, the force and out-put of the heart, and causes a rise in the blood pressure. In toxic doses, the pulse becomes rapid, and small in volume, and the heart is finally arrested in systole. According to Cushny, the action of helleborein on cardiac inhibition is less than most of the other members of the digitalis group. The helleborin of Marme and Husemann is a more active poison, though less irritant to the mucous membrane. It acts on the tongue like aconite. Its influence appears to be directed especially to the nervous system. In the lower animals it causes quickened breathing, restlessness, tension and trembling of the muscles, uncertainty of movement; then retardation of the breathing and pulse, irritability of the peripheral nerves, dilatation of the pupil, loss of hearing, and finally almost complete anesthesia, with cerebral and spinal congestion, even to apoplexy.
Hellebore was formerly used as a drastic purge in doses of from ten to twenty grains (0.65-1.3 Gm.). This employment has, however, justly passed out of vogue. It was highly esteemed by the ancients in mania, melancholy, amenorrhea, dropsy, and epilepsy. Bacher's pills, celebrated for the cure of dropsy, consisted chiefly of black hellebore. The glucoside helleborein has been used internally as a cardiac tonic in doses of from one-sixth to one-third of a grain (0.010-0.021 Gm.) several times a day, but its irritant action on the stomach militates against its practical usefulness. Ischistowitsch (Cb. M. W., 1887) has used an aqueous extract of hellebore with apparent benefit in heart diseases. Venturini and Gaspairini (B. G. T., June, 1888) state that helleborein is a local anesthetic, which, in affections of the eye, is preferable to cocaine, because of the great permanency of the anesthesia, and because neither the pupil nor the intra-ocular pressure is affected. They use from three to four drops of a solution, each drop of which represents one one-hundred and sixty-fourth of a grain (0.0004 Gm.). In overdoses hellebore produces inflammation of the gastric and intestinal mucous membrane, with violent vomiting, hypercatharsis, vertigo, cramp, and convulsions, which sometimes end in death. The fresh root applied to the skin produces inflammation and even vesication. The dose of the powdered root is from ten to twenty grains (0.65-1.3 Gm.) as a drastic purge, two or three grains (0.13-0.2 Gm.) as an alterative. Dose, of the decoction (two drachms to a pint), a fluidounce (30 mils) every four hours till it operates.
The Dispensatory of the United States of America, 1918, was edited by Joseph P. Remington, Horatio C. Wood and others.