Christmas Rose--black Hellebore

This well-known plant, a native of Southern Europe, and belonging

to the Ranunculus order, is grown commonly in our gardens

for the sake of its showy white flowers, conspicuous in winter,

from December to February. The root has been famous since

time immemorial as a remedy for insanity. From its abundant

growth in the Grecian island of Anticyra arose the proverb:

Naviget Anticyram--Take a voyage to Anticyra, as applied
br />
by way of advice to a man who has lost his reason.

When fresh the root is very acrid, and will blister the skin. If dried

and given as powder it will cause vomiting and purging, also

provoking sneezing when smelt, and inducing the monthly flow of

a woman. This root contains a chemical glucoside--helleborin,

which, if given in full doses, stimulates the kidneys to such an

excess that their function becomes temporarily paralyzed. It

therefore happens that a medicinal tincture (H.) made from the

fresh root collected at Christmas, just before the plant would

flower, when [108] taken in small doses, will promptly relieve

dropsy, especially a sudden dropsical swelling of the skin, with

passive venous congestion of the kidneys, as in scrofulous


A former method of administering the root was by sticking a

particularly sweet apple full of its fibres, and roasting this under

hot embers; then the fibres were withdrawn, and the apple was

eaten by the patient.

Taken by mischance in any quantity the root is highly poisonous:

one ounce of a watery decoction has caused death in eight hours,

with vomiting, giddiness, insensibility, and palsy. Passive dropsy

in children after scarlet fever may be effectually cured by small

doses of the tincture, third decimal strength.

The name Hellebore, as applied to the plant, comes from the

Greek Elein--to injure, and Bora--fodder. It is also known as

Melampodium, being thus designated because Melampus, a

physician in the Peloponnesus (B.C. 1530) watched the effect on

his goats when they had eaten the leaves, and cured therewith the

insane daughters of Proetus, King of Argos.

It was famous among the Egyptian and Greek doctors of old as the

most effectual remedy for the diseases of mania, epilepsy,

apoplexy, dropsy, and gout. The tincture is very useful in mental

stupor, with functional impairment of the hearing and sight;

likewise for strumous water on the brain.

The original reputation of this herb was acquired because of its

purgative properties, which enabled it to carry off black bile which

was causing insanity.

No tannin is contained in the root. A few drops of the juice

obtained therefrom, if dropped warm into the ear each night and

morning, will cure singing and noises in the ears. A proper dose of

the powdered root [109] is from five to ten grains. Snuff made

with this powder has cured night blindness, as among the French

prisoners at Norman Cross in 1806. The Gauls used to rub the

points of their hunting spears with Hellebore, believing the game

they killed was thus rendered more tender. Hahnemann said that at

least one third of the cases of insanity occurring in lunatic asylums

may be cured by this and the white Hellebore (an allied plant) in

such small doses as of the tincture twelfth dilution, given in the

patient's drink.

A bastard Hellebore, which is foetidus, or, stinking, and is

known to rustics as Bearsfoot, because of its digitate leaves, grows

frequently near houses in this country, though a doubtful native.

The sepals of its flowers are purple, and the leaves are evergreen;

the petals are green and leaf-like, whilst the nectaries are large and

tubular, often containing small flies. The nectar is reputed to be

poisonous. Again, this plant bears the names Pegroots, Oxbeel,

Oxheal, and Setterwort, because used for settering cattle. A

piece of the root is inserted as a seton (so-called from seta--a

hank of silk) into the dewlap, and this is termed pegging, or,

settering, for the benefit of diseased lungs. The root, says

Gerard, consists of many small black strings, involved or wrapped

one within another very intricately. The smell of the fresh plant is

extremely fetid, and, when taken, it will purge, or provoke

vomiting. The leaves are very useful for expelling worms. Dr.

Woodville says their juice made into a syrup, with coarse sugar, is

almost the only vermifuge he had used against round worms for

three years past. If these leaves be dried in an oven after the bread

is drawne out, and the powder thereof be taken in a figge, or raisin,

or strewed upon a piece of [110] bread spread with honey, and

eaten, it killeth worms in children exceedingly. A decoction made

with one drachm of the green leaves, or about fifteen grains of the

dried leaves in powder, is the usual dose for a child between four

and six years of age; but a larger dose will provoke sickness, or

diarrhoea. The medicine should be repeated on two or three

consecutive mornings; and it will be found that the second dose

acts more powerfully than the first, never failing to expel round

worms by stool, if there be any lodged in the alimentary tube.