The black hellebore, once known as the melampode (in Greek, melanorrhizon), is a low-lying plant with dark shiny leaves and pure white flowers (illustration). Its appearance in the winter earned it its favorite name of Christmas Rose. The black hellebore used by the Greeks has been identified as helleborus officinalis. There are also many other varieties of the plant, including green and white hellebore. The Greek word hellebore may refer to any of these varieties. Only black hellebore will be discussed in this brief review
This plant is a known abortifacient and emmenagogue. John Riddle in Contraception and Abortion from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance surveys the ancient references to this botanical. Dioscorides mentioned it as a component of abortion wine along with other botanicals but the exact make-up was not given (1). Hippocrates in Diseases of Women describes a drink made of black hellebore, myrrh, spikenard, pine resin and saltpeter (2) and compares the symptoms of hysterical suffocation to those caused by a dose of hellebore (Diseases of Women 2.126, 123), while Macer's herbal mentions it in a list of abortifacient and emmenagogues. Hellebore is also one of the four classic poisons but also was said to have substantial curative effects especially for mental disorders.
What compound or compounds are responsible for these varied effects? James A. Duke's Handbook of Phytochemical Constituents of GRAS Herbs and other Economic Plants (3) lists 12 compounds, with seven coming from the rhizome, one from the plant, and four from the flower. Of these compounds a number from the flower can be used in perfumery, but those of medical interest occur in the rhizome. Of these the most interesting are helleborin, hellebrin and hellebrigenin. Helleborin is a potent narcotic with a burning acrid taste, while hellebrin is listed as a digitalic, narcotic and said to possess anticarcinomic characteristics. In its role as a digitalic it also can function as a purgative. It is a member of a class of compounds called cardiac glycosides. These can be divided into two types; bufadienolides and cardenolides. The bufadienolides are based on a C24 steriod nucleus. The primary glycoside in hellebore is hellebrin but there is an aglycone of hellebrin, hellebrigenin, which is more potent than the glycoside itself. These three compounds would seem to be those that would account for the various medicinal properties of this potent botanical.