This section is from the book "A Text Book Of Materia Medica, Being An Account Of The More Important Crude Drugs Of Vegetable And Animal Origin", by Henry G. Greenish. Also available from Amazon: A Text Book of Materia Medica : Being an Account of the More Important Crude Drugs of Vegetable and Animal Origin.
Elateriumisthe feculence that is deposited, on standing, by the juice of the nearly ripe fruit of the Squirting Cucumber, collected and dried. This plant, Ecballium Elaterium, Richard (N.O. Gucur-bitacece), is a rough, prostrate, trailing plant, common in southern Europe, particularly in the countries bordering on the Mediterranean. It is cultivated to a limited extent in England, the bulk of the commercial drug being imported from Malta. The plant and the drug under notice have long been known, the process described by Dioscorides for making elaterium being almost identical with the method now adopted.
If the fruits, which resemble small hairy gherkins about 3 to 5 cm. long, are allowed to ripen, they are forcibly separated from the peduncles, the seeds and juice being simultaneously ejected. They are therefore collected before they are quite ripe, sliced, and pressed; the slightly turbid juice is allowed to stand, during which it becomes more turbid, and throws down a deposit which is collected, drained, and dried. This forms the elaterium of commerce.
Elaterium occurs in thin, opaque, curved pieces about 2 mm. thick, pale green in colour if fresh (presumably from the presence of a little chlorophyll), but becoming greyish green and finally yellowish grey by keeping. It is light and friable, breaking readily with a short, very finely granular fracture exhibiting minute crystals when examined with a lens. It has a slight odour, and bitter, acrid taste.
The active constituent of elaterium, β-elaterin, has not yet been obtained quite pure. It is an extremely powerful purgative and is accompanied in elaterin by an inactive crystalline substance, α-elaterin. Commercial elaterin is a mixture of inactive α-elaterin (60 to 80 per cent.) and active β-elaterin. English elaterium yields approximately 20 to 27 per cent of commercial elaterin, Maltese from 14 to 17 per cent. The drug contains in addition fat, inorganic matter, etc. Both α-elaterin and β-elaterin are contained preformed in the juice of the fruit and are not, as has been believed, liberated by the action of an enzyme.
Elaterium is liable to admixture with chalk and starch. It should yield not more than 8 per cent, of ash.
Elaterium is a powerful hydragogue cathartic, producing numerous very watery motions; it is almost entirely used as a hydragogue purgative in dropsy and uraemia.