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.
White hellebore, Veratrum album, Linne (N.O. Liliaceae), is an herbaceous plant with erect perennial rhizome, common in the mountains of central and southern Europe. It produces large, ovate, ribbed leaves and a flowering stem that attains a height of a metre or more. The rhizome appears to have been known and used medicinally for many years, but owing to its powerful and uncertain action it has been employed chiefly as an external application, though to a limited extent only.
The rhizome is dug up in the autumn, and the leaves, which are all radical until a flowering stem is produced, are cut off close to it. It is then usually dried entire, but is sometimes cut longitudinally into halves or quarters to facilitate drying, sometimes deprived of its roots and occasionally sliced transversely. The separation of the roots is to be deprecated, as they appear to be more active than the rhizome. When fresh the rhizome has an alliaceous odour, but this is lost by drying.
White hellebore rhizome (when freed from the roots) averages about 5 cm. in length and 2 cm. in thickness, and is of a dull black colour externally. The upper part is nearly cylindrical, but the lower extremity, where the rhizome gradually perishes and rots away as growth progresses, is usually bluntly conical or truncate. It is crowned with a dense leafy mass consisting of the thin, dry remains of numerous concentrically arranged leaf-bases which have been cut off level close to the rhizome; the outer of these are coarsely fibrous, the parenchymatous tissue having perished, leaving the veins persistent. The surface of the rhizome is rough and wrinkled and shows encircling scars, in the centre of which the slender wood is distinctly visible. In the untrimmed rhizome the roots are very numerous and stout: they completely envelop the rhizome, so that the untrimmed drug is much more bulky than the rhizome alone. They are usually dull grey or yellowish in colour, and commonly show a disposition to shrivel longitudinally rather than transversely.
The rhizome frequently branches, two or even three branches springing from the same rhizome. This is caused by the production of a flowering stem; the main axis being thus terminated, the growth of the rhizome is continued by the development of one or more of the buds that are situated in the axils of the inner radical leaves. Such a branch may grow for several years before it flowers.
The drug breaks with a short fracture, the interior being whitish, firm, compact, and starchy. The cortex is about 3 mm. thick, and separated by a wavy, brownish line (endodermis) from the stele, the latter being irregularly traversed in a characteristic manner by yellowish fibro-vascular bundles. The cortex also exhibits occasional bundles (leaf-traces), and gives off here and there a root.
The drug has a bitterish, acrid taste but little odour; the powder is strongly sternutatory.
Fig. 211. - White Hellebore rhizome. A, rhizome with roots. B, longitudinal section of rhizome. Natural size. (Pharmaceutical Journal).
The student should observe
(a) That the rhizome is usually entire,
(b) That the roots are greyish in colour, and not often much shrivelled transversely,
(c) The characters of the transverse section; and should compare the drug with American veratrum (see below).
White hellebore contains several alkaloids, amounting in all to 0.5 to 1.0 per cent. The most important and the most toxic of these is protoveratrine, C32H51NO11 (0.03 per cent.), which is obtainable in small crystals melting at 245° to 250°. It closely resembles aconitine in its action, and is in addition a powerful sternutatory. Jervine, C26H37N03,2H10, is also crystalline and toxic, but it is less active than protoveratrine. Rubijervine and pseudojervine are also present, but are said to be inactive. Whether protoveratridine occurs preformed in the drug is doubtful. The roots appear to be somewhat richer in alkaloid than the rhizome (Bredemann, 1906), and should not therefore be discarded. White hellebore also contains resin and starch.
White hellebore is a powerful emetic and purgative when administered in full doses. It has been prescribed for gout, but is now usually employed as an external application in certain skin diseases, for the destruction of pediculi and other noxious vermin, and as a moth-powder.