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HerbaceousSpecies Plant

Veratrum album

Veratrum album

The false helleborine, white hellebore, European white hellebore or white veratrum (Veratrum album L.) is a herbaceous species belonging to the Liliaceae family (Cronquist System) and to that of the Melanthiaceae (APG IV classification system).

Systematics –
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
Eukaryota domain,
Kingdom Plantae,
Magnoliophyta division,
Class Liliopsida,
Order Liliales,
Liliaceae family,
Genus Veratrum,
Species V. album.
The terms are synonyms:
– Helleborus albus (L.) Gueldenst.;
– Melanthium album (L.) Thunb.;
– Melanthium bracteolare Desr.;
– Melanthium virens Thunb.;
– Veratrum album f. glabrescens (Zapal.) Soó;
– Veratrum album f. podolicum (Zapal.) Soó;
– Veratrum album f. viridiflorum (Mert. & W.D.J.Koch) Wimm. & Grab.;
– Veratrum album subsp. albicans Gaudin;
– Veratrum album subsp. misae (Širj.) Tzvelev;
– Veratrum album var. albiflorum Lange;
– Veratrum album var. bosniacum (Beck) Nyman;
– Veratrum album var. croaticum Beck;
– Veratrum album var. flavum Griseb.;
– Veratrum album var. misae (Širj.);
– Veratrum album var. spathulatum Beck;
– Veratrum album var. viride Lapeyr.;
– Veratrum album var. viridiflorum Mert. & W.D.J.Koch;
– Veratrum bosniacum Beck;
– Veratrum bosniacum var. albanicum O.Loes.;
– Veratrum croaticum (Beck) O.Loes.;
– Veratrum flavum (Griseb.) O.Loes.;
– Veratrum lobelianum f. oppositifolium Cheshm.;
– Veratrum lobelianum subsp. misae (Širj.) Šourková;
– Veratrum lobelianum var. glabrescens Zapal.;
– Veratrum lobelianum var. misae (Širj.) O.Loes.;
– Veratrum lobelianum var. misae Širj.;
– Veratrum lobelianum var. obovatum Beck;
– Veratrum lobelianum var. podolicum Zapal.;
– Veratrum misae (Širj.) Loes.;
– Veratrum misae (Širj.) O.Loes.;
– Veratrum parviflorum Bong.;
– Veratrum polygamum Gilib.;
– Veratrum viride Röhl..

Etymology –
The term Veratrum comes from vērātrum, which designated various toxic and medicinal plants, belonging to different genera, united by being considered remedies against epilepsy and insanity: some species of hellebore, known as black hellebore, and the common hellebore, called white hellebore, distinguished by the color of the roots. The term is presumably of pre-Latin origin and has been connected to the Proto-Indo-European root *wreyt- to twist, writhe; explanations such as vere atrum really dark or the connection with verum (because the plant would be the “real” remedy against insanity or clear the mind) fall within the scope of paraetymology.
The specific album epithet comes from white albus referring, in this case, to the flowers of the plant.

Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Veratrum album is a poisonous plant native to Europe and parts of Western Asia (Western Siberia, Turkey, Caucasus).
Its natural habitat is that of moist grassy subalpine meadows and open woodlands.

Description –
Veratrum album is a perennial plant up to 150 cm tall.
The stems are strong and simple and are 50–175 cm tall.
The leaves arranged in a spiral, the basal ones alternate and elliptic-ovate in shape with a tip at the vertex, 10-26 x (4)6-15 cm, furrowed by well-evident veins, pubescent on the underside and with a ciliated margin.
The flowers are formed by 6 petals and grouped in terminal inflorescences branched in their lower half; they are white, marked with green on the upper part of the stem.
The fruit is a small pod (folli carium) of 12-25 x 8-13 mm, glabrous or pubescent, containing 20 – 26 ovoid seeds with membranous wing of (4)6-8 x 2-4 mm.
The plants have an estimated life span of several centuries and often achieve dominance in wilderness areas as they are unpalatable to grazing herbivores.

Cultivation –
Veratrum album normally grows spontaneously but can be cultivated, especially for ornamental purposes; in this case it prefers a soil rich in humus, fertile and deep, which retains humidity.
The plant can grow in full sun if the soil doesn’t dry out but prefers a partially shaded position, moreover it doesn’t like dry soils.
The optimal conditions are, therefore, that of cool woodland gardens or in a north-facing border.
The plants, as mentioned, are very long-lived and can be left in the same position for years without any care.
The propagation must be carried out taking into account that, unless it is kept in moist sand at about 4°C, the seed has a short vitality.
Where possible it is best to sow the seed in a lightly shaded position in the greenhouse as soon as it is ripe.
Stored seeds need to be stratified but can be very slow to germinate. Germination can be irregular even for seeds set to germinate while still fresh; usually occurs within 3 – 12 months at 15°C but can be much longer.
The plant produces only one seed leaf in its first year, this forms an overwintering bulb. It takes up to 10 years for the plant to reach maturity.
It is recommended to sow the seeds so that there is no need to thin out or transplant them and to grow the seedlings undisturbed in the pot for the first two years of growth. A liquid fertilizer can be applied at intervals throughout the growing season to ensure plants do not become nutrient deficient. At the end of the second year the dormant plants are planted in individual pots and grown in a semi-shaded position in the greenhouse for a further year or two before transplanting into open ground in late spring or early summer.
Propagation can also take place asexually, by division in March/mid-spring or in October. It is advisable to place the potted plants in a shady position before planting them.
It should be emphasized that the divisions are best done in autumn because the plants start growing very early in spring.
Finally, it can also be reproduced by root cuttings, 6 mm long with a bud, rooted in a sandy soil in an unheated greenhouse.

Customs and Traditions –
Veratrum album is a toxic plant for both humans and animals.
It is emphasized that all parts of the plant are poisonous, including its aroma.
Ingestion of hellebore by pregnant cows can cause alopecia and severe bone defects in calves such as cleft palate.
About this plant there is a debate among historians about the cause of Alexander the Great’s death. Some believe the Macedonian king died of natural causes and others believe he was poisoned. The Romance suggests that his inner circle conspired to assassinate him upon his return to Babylon. A theory proposed by Schep in 2013 suggests that Veratrum album was used to kill Alexander the Great. Schep argues that the usual suspects found guilty, such as arsenic and strychnine, acted too quickly to correlate with historical accounts. Alexander the Great was ill for twelve days and suffered symptoms compatible with Veratrum album poisoning. In particular this theory is strengthened by the proposal that Alexander drank wine poisoned with parts of this plant. Diodorus’ accounts detail that the king was stricken with grief after drinking a large cup of unmixed wine in honor of Hercules.
In more recent history various Veratrum alkaloids are reported to have been present in a German sneezing powder in 1982, resulting in the accidental poisoning of those who used it. Sneeze powders are commonly used to play pranks on others. In 1983, there were nine cases of accidental poisoning as a result of these pranks due to the presence of Veratrum alkaloi in sneezing powders.
The victims were nine boys aged between 11 and 18 in Scandinavian countries using supplies imported from the Federal Republic of Germany. All the boys had inhaled the powder and six had ingested it. Symptoms typically showed up within an hour, after which calls were made to authorities. After sneezing, the victims began to develop gastrointestinal disturbances such as vomiting in all cases and epigastric pain in two. Three of the children collapsed from low blood pressure before being admitted to hospital. Seven of the children had significantly reduced blood pressure and five had cases of sinus bradycardia with no other irregularities. Half of those who ingested the powder were treated with gastric lavage. Four of the boys were given atropine to fight bradycardia and one was given activated charcoal. Atropine normalized their heart rate within minutes, but had little influence on low blood pressure. In all cases, the patients recovered within twenty-four hours.
In 2005 and 2008, three cases of accidental poisoning were reported. In 2009, eleven children, aged between 8 and 12, accidentally ingested Veratrum album at a youth camp where they had made home-made tea with fresh herbs. Two children remained asymptomatic, nine developed mild gastrointestinal symptoms, six had neurological symptoms, and three showed bradycardia; after medical treatment, all the children recovered.
Four cases of accidental poisoning were reported in 2010 after Veratrum album was mistaken for wild garlic and used in self-prepared salads and soups. All victims developed nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, sinus bradycardia, and hypotension. Full recovery took between twenty-four and forty-eight hours.
On other occasions, in some prepared drinks, V. album has been mistaken for the harmless yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) or wild garlic (Allium ursinum), resulting in poisoning.
Symptoms of Veratrum alkaloid poisoning typically occur within thirty minutes to four hours of ingestion, and include:
– Vomit;
– abdominal pain;
– hypotension;
– bradycardia;
– nausea;
– drowsiness;
– dizziness;
– dilated pupils.
Treatment for Veratrum alkaloid poisoning includes supportive care and symptomatic treatments, such as fluid replacement and antiemetics. Atropine and vasopressors act to combat bradycardia and hypotension. The duration of the disease can last up to ten days, but complete recovery is possible within a few hours depending on the dose and treatment.
Biochemically Veratrum album contains over fifty steroidal alkaloids called “Veratrum alkaloids”, including O-acetyljervina, cevadine, cryptenamine, cyclopamine (11-deoxojervina), cyclopamine, germitrin, germidine, jervina, muldamine, protoveratrin (A&B) , veratramine, veratridine and veriloid.
Some major toxins have a modified steroid template, while others differ in their esterified acid fractions.
In general, the alkaloids of Veratrum work by increasing the permeability of the sodium channels of the nerve cells, causing them to be continuously activated. The increase in stimulation, associated with the vagus nerve, determines the Bezold-Jarisch reflex: hypotension, bradycardia and apnoea.
In detail, the neurotoxicity of Veratrum alkaloids derives from their effect on the sodium ion channels of nerve cells. They activate the receptor site 2 of the voltage-gated Na+ channel in membranes by prolonging its open state. Alkaloids depolarize nerves by increasing the exchange of Na+ and K+ across the membrane.
Historically it was in 1890 that Georg Salzberger first isolated and named the alkaloid protoverathrin. Subsequent research found that protoveratrin is a mixture of two closely related alkaloids, protoveratrin A and protoveratrin B. During the 1940s and 1950s, Veratrum album was studied in essential hypertension, hypertension during dysfunction renal and in pre-eclampsia.
From a medicinal point of view, the root is analgesic, anthelmintic, cathartic, emetic, errine, expectorant, hypnotic and sneezing.
The root is very poisonous, with a paralyzing effect on the nervous system, and is rarely or never used internally although the alkaloids it contains are used in the pharmaceutical industry.
It is occasionally used externally as a local analgesic, although this too is not without danger as it can be absorbed through skin lesions.
It is also used in veterinary medicine and homepathy.
For the preparation of the homeopathic remedy, the Mother Tincture of the plant is used, obtained from the fresh root which is harvested before flowering.
The preparation process with dilution-dynamization, however, not only renders Veratrum album incapable of harm but extrinsics many other healing properties that the non-dynamized raw substance does not possess.
Veratrum album is used for the treatment of pathologies mainly related to:
– to the digestive system: choleriform disorders characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, icy perspiration and lipothymia.
– to the nervous system: tetaniform muscle cramps and manic and delusional manifestations.

Preparation Mode –
Veratrum album is a toxic plant both for humans and for animals, therefore it must never be collected and used; moreover one must be very careful in the pastures even if some animals avoid it.
The root is harvested in early autumn and is dried for later use.
As mentioned, it finds use in the homeopathic field.
The dried and powdered root contains pyrethrum and is used as an insecticide and parasiticide.
It is also effective against caterpillars and mammals, so caution is advised.
Extracts from dried rhizomes of Veratrum album were briefly used as a pesticide against the Colorado potato beetle.

Guido Bissanti

– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.

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Attention: The pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not in any way represent a medical prescription; we therefore decline all responsibility for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.

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