COMMON NAMES: White Hellebore, Elabro Bianco (Italian), False Hellebore, Gonos Aetou (Greek, ‘eagle’s chest or ‘summer bird child’), Kundush (Persian), Lagnion (Gaulish, ‘physician plant’), Langwort, Luppwurzel, Marsithila (‘seat of a sea demon’), Somphia (Egyptian), Veratre Blanc (French), Witte Nieswortel (Dutch)
White hellebore is an herbaceous plant that grows to approximately four to five feet tall. It has a fleshy stalk that is round, straight and rather thick, with broad, ovate, continuous, alternate leaves. The plant flowers between June and August with green or white blooms. One can propagate the plant with the seeds, its shoots, or segments of the rhizome (roots). The entire plant contains steroid and steroid-like alkaloids. The alkaloid content varies considerably depending on altitude and location (Ratsch 1998, 526).
White hellebore can be distinguished from plants that are similar in appearance, such as Veratrum viride or the toxic Gentiana lutea, by the arrangement of the leaves; V. album has three leaves at the base of each stem, while the others do not (Pahlow 1993 cited in Ratsch 1998, 526).
White hellebore may be found easily throughout all of Eurasia. In particular it may be found all over Scandinavia, central Asia, the Alps, Finland, Siberia, North America and the Pyrenees Mountains of southwest Europe – the mountain range that forms a natural border between France and Spain. In Switzerland, the plant is indigenous to the Jura Mountains (Ratsch 1998, 526).
TRADITIONAL USES: Veratrum album, or white hellebore, was considered to be one of the most important medicinal plants in pre-historic Greece. Both the white and black variations of hellebore were thought to be sacred herbs of the gods, as noted by the great Greek philosopher Theophrastus, mentor to Aristotle and Plato. It has been speculated that the name “hellebore” meant “food of Helle”, Helle referring to the Pelasgian goddess who was the namesake of Hellespont (Graves 1948 cited in Ratsch 1998, 525).
The primary intake method when using white hellebore is in the form of snuff. Since the plant induces sneezing, its German name is niewurz, meaning “sneezing root”. The sneezing powder was believed in ancient times to purge the demons of illness from the body. It is still used in present day, although its composition has become less pure throughout time, since now it is most commonly mixed into a type of herbal blend snuff known as Snow Mountain, which has long been used to bring on feelings of euphoria (Ratsch 1998, 525).
White hellebore smoking mixtures have a longstanding history in Native American Indian culture. They remain an essential ritualistic element still used today in Native American ceremonies, including shamanic healing, festivals, tribal council meetings, treaty ratification summits, and visionary journeys. The Flathead Indians called white hellebore by the name of “stesoio”, their word for sneeze, and used the powdered root as a snuff to induce sneezing. Doing so clears the respiratory tract of illness and disease. A shamanic use of note is the chewing of a small piece of the rhizome, spitting the resulting saliva into a body of water in order to make sea monsters disappear (Gunther 1988).
The Greeks and Romans used white hellebore as a sacrament which they would snuff and it about homes and on mantles. These rituals are believed to be cleansing ceremonies, ridding both the physical body and the homes of malevolent spirits and harmful influences. This may explain why the Celts hung white hellebore branches on houses as a form of protection against evil (Ratsch 1998, 526-527).
Although documentation is vague, stories have been handed down throughout the generations that Celtic Druids referred to the plant as the “seed of Hercules,” thus linking it with semi-divine sperm. In late antiquity, Hercules enjoyed great popularity in Gaul, becoming the object of Celtic mythology and consecration rituals (Botheroyd 1992 cited in Ratsch 1998, 527).
It is said that the Celts used white hellebore for psychoactive purposes in the form of a mythical drink associated with the Celtic Mother Goddess Cerridwen. She was believed to know the secret of the concoction which would lead only those brave enough to partake into a state of true inspiration and complete, absolute knowledge. It was said that anyone who imbibed this drink attained enlightenment and was able to experience the past, present and future simultaneously as one. It is thought that the “cauldron of Cerridwen” contained a mash of barley, acorns, honey, bull’s blood, and herbs like ivy (Hedera helix), white hellbore, and laurel (Laurus nobilis) (Graves 1948 cited in Ratsch 1998, 527).
The Old German name for the plant, germ’r, is rumored to be named after an old Germanic warrior renowned for his expert use of a spear. The root was regarded by Germanic tribes as a place where elves would dwell, and the ancient Germans used the plant to pass through to the other worlds where they would come into contact with the elves. These elves were said to be “light elves,” those who dwelled in the heavens, and “dark elves,” the ones who lived beneath the surface of the earth. It is possible that white hellbore was used and inhaled as an incense for this purpose (Werner 1991 cited in Ratsch 1998, 527).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATIONS: Dried V. album leaves may be smoked alone or used as an ingredient in smoking blends. The dried white hellebore leaves are crushed then combined with dried kinnikinnick, widely known as bearberry, which is a popular ground cover foliage in gardens, as well as a basic ingredient in Native American Indian peace pipe ritual smoking blends. Native Americans also smoke the dried roots of white hellebore mixed together with tobacco or bearberry leaves (Ratsch 1998, 527).
The psychoactive properties of white hellebore are derived from the rhizome and the leaves. The roots are best collected in Fall, throughout the months of September and October, then dried well and ground into a powder. Mixed with tobacco, this root powder is one of the main ingredients in Schneeberger Schnupftabak, a modern day European snuff also known as Snow Mountain (Ratsch 1998, 525). The plant should not be applied to broken skin, and must only be consumed in very small doses. As little as one gram of powdered V. album rhizome can be fatal if consumed, and all parts of the plant are toxic on some level (Roth et al. 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 526).
MEDICINAL USES: In ancient Rome and Greece, white hellebore was used as a medicine to treat a variety of ailments, most commonly those of a psychological nature. This medicinal use also had a strong ritual aspect to it. A patient was to prepare for taking a decoction of white hellebore for seven days prior to treatment by eating spicy foods and abstaining from drinking wine for three days. On the fourth day, they were made to vomit, and on the day just before embarking on treatment, they abstained from food entirely. After this, the patient took the white hellebore medicine, and again would vomit (after about four hours). The entire treatment took approximately seven hours. It was believed by ancient peoples that this treatment healed epilepsy, dizziness, melancholy, insanity, demonic possession, leprosy, tremors and gout, among many other ailments (Pliny cited in Ratsch 1998, 527).
Old Germanic lore describes the use of the root to induce abortions. In ancient Persia (now Iran), fresh white hellebore root was ground into a moist paste, then applied topically as a salve to relieve headaches and neuralgia. Ointments, poultices, and washings containing white hellebore extract were used externally to treat scabies, lice, psoriasis, and other skin diseases. The root powder was ingested to treat depression, asthma, paralysis, rheumatism, and fever (Ratsch 1998, 527-528).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Although the plant has been said to open doors to other worlds and allow vision, overdose from internal administration can lead to vomiting, nausea, headache, hallucinations, sweats, weakness, hypotension, paralysis, collapse, and many other symptoms. Overdose can occur in doses as low as one gram. In extreme cases, coma or death by asphyxia can result. British Columbian natives say that the only remedy for overdose is to consume great amounts of salmon oil. Even drinking water in which V. album has grown is said to cause numbness of the mouth. Therefore, it is important to be very careful when working with this plant (Hruby et al. 1981 cited in Ratsch 1998, 528).
Gunther, E. Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1988.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.