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Black Hellebore { Its past and present Medicinal uses}

Updated on January 18, 2014

Helleborus niger



The Black hellebore belongs to the Ranunculales order of plants and the family Ranunculaceae -The buttercup family. They are placed in the genus Helleborus and given the specific name of niger. It is sometimes referred to as the Christmas rose, even though it is not related in any way to the rose family Rosales. it probably alludes to the rose like flowers and the early flowering period..

In the dark ages country people would strew them on the floor of their houses which supposedly drove out evil influences and to ward off the power of witches. Sourcerer's were supposed to render themselves invisible by powdering the herb and throwing it in to the air around them.

Here we look at the past medicinal uses of this species. It includes observations and case notes from by gone herbalists and physicians. As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Courtesy of the BHL
Courtesy of the BHL

Description of Helleborus niger the Black Hellebore

The root of this species consists of numerous, thick, fleshy descending fibres, proceeding from a large transverse, knotted stock. Externally they are nearly black while internally they are of a yellowish colour. from the root system rises up naked, thick cylindrical stems {scapes} four to five inches high, with one or two terminal flowers subtended by two or three ovate bractea.

The leaves expand with the stems,or, immediately after them. They are all radical, on long stalks, large,smooth, deep green often spotted with reddish brown, with ovate, lanceolate, acute serrated leaflets.

The calyx {sepals etc} consists of fine large, roundish, obtuse, petal-like sepals, white often tinged with a rose colour. The petals are very short, tubular and two lipped. The stamens are very numerous, with capillary filaments, rather longer than the petals, and yellowish red anthers.

The fruit contains many black shining seeds. The plant is a native to Austria, Italy, Greece,Switzerland, Germany, Slovenia and Croatia among other countries. They are often cultivated in gardens where it flowers from December to January.

Hellebore flower


Historical medicinal uses.

The fibres of the root, which was the part used in medicine, are about the thickness of a quill, and, when fresh are whitish or reddish internally and externally are a pale brownish colour. The odour is described as nauseous. The taste is bitter, somewhat acrid and persistent.

When chewed {not recommended} they affect the tongue with a stupifying sensation, as one would get when eating something a little burnt or drinking anything too hot. these qualities are impaired by keeping, and the pale brown coloured epidermis becomes dark brown or nearly black.

The active matter appears to be a volatile nature as it nearly all passes over in distillation of water, and the root may also be deprived of its acrimony by successive decoctions. Alcohol also extracts its virtues, which would appears to depend on its resinous parts.

In the Journal de Pharmaiie, volume two page 563, Feneulle and Capron have discovered in it a volatile oil, containing and acrid and bitter principal, mucus etc.

Poisonous properties and findings.

Black Hellebore, incautiously given, produces upon the animal system all the effects of a violent acrid poison, combined with some narcotic effects. { in most cases poisonous plants were tested on defenseless animals and the following paragraphs mentions some such text -Dal }.

Orfila, found that two or three drachms { one drachm =one eighth of a fluid ounce}, of the root killed a dog in a few hours, and that a smaller amount applied to a wound, produced the same effect more speedily. A decoction of an ounce of the root in water, caused death in eight hours. Schlahel, conveys in his writings that ten grains of the extract introduced into the windpipe, killed a rabbit in six minutes. The chief symptoms were "violent efforts to vomit, giddiness, palsy of the hind legs and insensibility"

The Bulletins of the Medical Society of Emulation, mentions two characteristic cases which arose from the ignorance of a 'quack' doctor. Both persons were taking a decoction of the root, were seized with delirium, and afterwards with violent convulsions. One died in two and a half hours, and the other in less than two hours. Morgagni has related a case which proved fatal in about sixteen hours, the leading symptoms of which were pain in the stomach and vomiting. The dose in that instance was only half a drachm of the extract. A Postmortem revealed there was inflammation of the digestive canal, particularly in the great intestines.

Christison on Poisons, 3rd edition page 786 relates- in a case that proved not to be fatal conveys notes from Dr.Fahrenhorst-" The symptoms were those of irritant poisoning generally, that is, burning pain in the stomach and throat, violent vomiting, to the extent of sixty times in the first two hours, cramps of the limbs, and cold sweats. The most material symptoms were at this time quickly subdued by sinapisms to the belly and anodyne demulcents given internally, and in four days the patient was well"

Other historical notes revealed the following --A man , who appeared to be nearly fifty years old, being in hospital on account of melancholia , was about to depart, when he took some extract of black hellebore, by which he was considerably purged. in the beginning of the night , at the 7th or 8th hour after taking it he was attacked by vomiting and pains in the abdomen, which was allayed by warm broth, about the 5th hour of the night these pains returned, and were again relieved.

He lay down an hour afterwards, having vomited 2-3 spoonfuls of general matter. So quietly did he rest, that none of the patients in the nearest beds heard him. But at the eighth hour they were attracted to his bedside by a peculiar noise from his mouth, and found him dead. He had taken about half a drachm of the extract, a quantity which had been administered to others with impunity. He had, however, neglected to drink copiously of whey, a precaution it was customary to recommend. On examination, the stomach, oesophagus , and intestines were inflammed, but not violently in any part. The whole cerebrum was soft.

Veratrum album {European white hellebore}


Past medicinal uses of black hellebore

The root of hellebore has been used for centuries as a remedy against insanity. It was abundant in the Isle of Anticyras { a city in Phokis Greece}. An old proverb states ' naviga ad Anticyras'-take a voyage to Anticyras- was the advise given by the ancients to those that had lost their reason. This old proverb will apply equally to the Veratrum album { White Hellebore} as to H. nigra, according to the Flora Homoepathica 1852-1853.

His repute in 'maniacal disorders' appear to have arisen from its drastic purgative properties of expelling the atra bilis { sharp bile}, from which such maladies were invariably thought to be the origin. But, they doubtless attributed some efficacy to the other medicines combined with it and which tended to modify its violent actions.

However, my research discovered that the ancients appeared to be very careful to give it persons of a 'robust constitution', carefully directing that it " should never be prescribed for children or old persons, or those of either sex whose habit of body was delicate"

Patients were prepared for 7 days prior to any treatment of hellebore by a regulated diet and frequent gentle aperient medicines. It also appears that they had several ways of preparing and correcting it. Unfortunately many of these methods have been lost in the midst of time, except that they selected only the fibres of the root, which they macerated, a short time in water,and then separated the bark and dried it in the shade. This was administered {when powdered} in honey, or the pulp of raisins, to which they added some aromatic seeds.

Ettmuller states, that an apple, particularly sweet, was chosen, and stuck full of the fibres of Hellebore root, then roasted under hot embers, the fibres were then withdrawn, and the apple eaten by the patient, it said it operated mildly but effectually.


This recipe was found in the British Flora Medica {1858},----

Take of hellebore root, any quantity; having sliced and bruised it, pour upon it eight times its weight in boiling water. Boil down to one half, express the liquor strongly and strain. Evaporate the decoction immediately to the consistence of thick honey, in a bath of boiling water, saturate with common salt.

To produce its cathhartic effects, from 10-20 grains are necessary. As an emmenagogue, from 3-10 grains. but as an alterative for attenuatry viscid humours, promoting the uterine and urinary secretions etc, from 2-3 grains are sufficient. Of the decoction made with 2 drachms of the root to a pint of water, an ounce may be given every three to four hours.


Take of black hellebore root, bruised----4 ounces

proof spirit------two pints

Macerate for 14 days and filter.

This was recommended in uterine obstructions, and in gout. The dose given was a teaspoonful twice a day.

In the Brit.Dom.Herb page 189, Mr. Whaller has the following observations of the effects of hellebore root as an errhine {causes nasal secretion}, he states-- " In the depot for French prisoners of war at Norman Cross, in the year 1806, a peculiar disease, called Nyctalopia, was very prevalent among them. The symptoms which distinguished this disease are that the patient becomes by degrees blind, from the moment of sunset till the reappearance of the bright luminary next morning. This disease affected a great number of the prisoners, who were obliged to be led about by their comrades immediately after sunset, and all of them at the same time were labouring under symptoms of extreme dyspepsia.

" After a variety of treatments ineffectually applied the powder of black hellebore was given to them as a snuff, and having been deprived of snuff, they took the hellebore with avidity, and generally recovered from their Nyctalopia in the course of a very few days, and the dyspeptic symptoms were at the same time greatly relieved. There is no doubt that in many other affections of the head the same treatment would be found extremely efficacious, and is well worthy of a trial in many chronic diseases of the eyes, particularly in the early stages of gutta serena " { now referred to as Amarosis-{ vision loss without any apparent lesion affecting the eye.}

The above information is for historical interest only hellebore is very poisonous and should never be taken internally.

Helleborus niger showing rose coloured tints



It appears to have been much confusion in earlier times over this plant and others being used in mistake for the species. Woodville {1800's} stated " 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 in which such arguments might be deduced. For a great number of instances are on record of the effects of this plant, by which it since appears that other plants were mistaken for it, and actually employed. Of these many enumerate the Helleborus viridis, Adonis vernalis,Trollius europeaus, Actaea spicata, Astrantia major, and Acontitum napellus., and the roots of these plants posses very different powers, we can not be surprised that the medicinal history of this root is not only confused and contradictory, but calculated to produce very mischievous and even fatal consequences."

As we have seen this plant is better left well alone as regards home made medicinal preparations and enjoy the plant as a garden ornamental. Its pretty flowers brighten up a winter garden.

Hellebores and the garden

Helleborus, is a genus of perennials, some of which are evergreen, grown for their winter and spring flowers. Most deciduous species retain their old leaves through the winter. These should be cut off in the early spring as the flower buds develop.

They are excellent plants for woodland situations. They prefer semi-shade and a moist retentive well drained soil They may be propagated in by fresh seed or division in autumn or very early in the spring. These plants are prone to aphid attack during the summer months. Many varieties are now available to the gardener.

Helleborus orientalis 'Ruse black'

This beautiful flower is one of the many species available to the gardener.
This beautiful flower is one of the many species available to the gardener. | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hi Deb, they are beautiful flowers but they are only very low growing. thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      hose flowers certainly make a statement. I would love to have some of those. Great material as always!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      cat on a soapbox,

      Hi Catherine, they certainly are great to look at and they enhance woodland and other shady aspects. You are right to warn of their toxicity, once people are aware of it, they can be admired for their beauty. Thank you for your visit and for leaving your kind comments.

    • cat on a soapbox profile image

      Catherine Tally 

      4 years ago from Los Angeles

      Hello Dave,

      As beautiful as hellebores are, the toxicity of them worries me for families w/ pets and young children. At the nursery where I work, I recommend them for pots or beds w/ shaded entryways or for woodland areas, yet feel it important to mention that they are very poisonous. Thank you for providing such an interesting account of its historical medicinal use both good and bad.

      My best,


    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Devika, Once again I have to thank you for being the first to visit and for leaving your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Black Hellebore is a lovely flower a unique hub with interesting information.


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