A native to central and southern Europe’s oak and beech forest regions up to 1900 metres, it is also daa widely grown garden plant in other regions. Contrary to its common name, the plant is not a member of the harmless rose family (Rosaceae), but of the Ranunculaceae, a notorious family with many poisonous members like buttercup and monkshood. The Black Hellebore has an ornamentally and olfactorily less attractive sister, the putrid-smelling Stinking Hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) with light green flowers in leathery dark green foliage, and the Green Hellebore (Helleborus viridis), but both of these latter species flower in spring (February to April). All plant parts of both species are poisonous, but most so the roots. Hellebore should not be confused with False Hellebore (Veratrum album) which is also toxic but not related to the Helleborus plants.
The substance protoanemonin in hellebores (5.82 µm/g wet mass) causes blistering on skin and mucuous membranes in the mouth and digestive tract and damages the kidneys upon excretion. Ingested, the mixture of saponins (Helleborin, ranunculosids like protoanemonin) in the roots of hellebores is potentially fatal: it evokes salivation, vomiting, severe diarrhoea, bradycardia (lowering of heart rate), paralysis, and might cause death from cardiac arrest.
Onset of effects is about 30min after ingestion, death might occur several hours later.
Drying and storing hellebore will not reduce toxicity!
Sheep and goat: 4-12 g fresh root; horses and cows: 8-10 fresh root; pigs dog: 0.3 – 1g fresh root.
Hellebore is responsible for one of the earliest cases of chemical warfare. During the siege of Kirrha in the sixth century BC, hellebore was used to poison the city's water supply and weakened the defenders so much through diarrhoea that they were unable to defend the city. Hellebore was well known in Greece as an emetic and was also used to treat mental illness.
1987 in Los Angeles a young man was poisoned with hellebore by his lover for infecting him with HIV.