February 10, 2017



Hellish Hellebore

Snow Rose or Black Hellebore (Helleborus niger). The Black Hellebore is named after the colour of its thick roots – also its most poisonous part. It is better known by its other name, “Snow or Christmas Rose”, because of the white flowers that bloom in the middle of winter (November to February).

English version

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.

Reaction time

Onset of effects is about 30min after ingestion, death might occur several hours later.


Drying and storing hellebore will not reduce toxicity!

Toxic doses

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.

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Eva Waiblinger


Eva Waiblinger, MSc, PhD (Dr. sc. nat.), is a Swiss zoologist and science journalist as well as a member of the Swiss National Ethics Committee for Animal Experiments. She currently works as a Math and Biology teacher at a vocational school. Before that, she has been head of the companion animal welfare department of Swiss Animal Protection SAP for 12 years. She currently writes a biomedical thriller. The remainder of her leisure time is taken up by Goju Ryu karate and the all-female vocal ensemble Qtet she founded.