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Veratrum album, white hellebore


For all those who find it hard to believe that just smelling some flowers can be harmful.


Liliaceae but formerly placed in Melanthiaceae

Meaning of the Name

From the Latin ‘vere’, ‘true’, ‘real’, ‘truly’ plus ‘ater’, ‘black’ from the very black colour of the roots.
White flowers

Common Names and Synonyms

white hellebore, sneezewort.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

It contains at least 20 steroidal alkaloids, known as Veratrum alkaloids, including proveratrine, protoveratrine, veratramine, veratradine, cevadine and jervine.

Veratrum album, white hellebore

Veratrum album, white hellebore

Of these protoveratrine has been shown to reduce oxygen in the blood and lead to breathing problems, and jervine can cause cyclopia where a feotus has only a single eye in the centre of the forehead.

There are a few cases of Veratrum poisoning in the literature. Typically, symptoms are nausea, repeated vomiting, drowsiness, dizziness, salivation, dilated pupils and bradycardia. Atropine has been used as a treatment in order to combat the bradycardia.

These days, its most harmful property is that it severely damages the nasal passages due to the poison in the aroma. The irritation caused results in sneezing. It was used in sneezing powder until the full extent of the harm was understood. Statutory instrument 2844 of 1994 prohibits its supply for amusement.


At higher doses, sneezing powder has been found to cause more than just sneezing. A 1983 report from a poison control centre in France examined nine cases of poisoning resulting from sneezing powders containing Veratrum alkaloids. In addition to severe sneezing, the children involved suffered gastrointestinal upsets and fainting as a result of bradycardia. The centre contacted the manufacturers and the formulation was changed.

There is a theory that Alexander the Great died because of eating white hellebore when he told his physicians to give it to him to treat diarrhoea. Like the Helleborus spp. it was believed that it should not be given to the young, old or effeminate. Perhaps, Alexander wished to demonstrate that he was capable of taking a strong purgative.

The plant causes diarrhoea but the theory was that, if something in the guts was causing illness, taking a substance which caused diarrhoea would have the effect of purging the problem from the system. The plant may take 10 - 14 days to kill but it is unclear if that means continuous consumption or whether a fatal dose takes that long to have its effect.

Though not one of the ‘mainstream’ poisons, Veratrum album has quite a story of accidental and deliberate death, the most recent being in 2001, in France, when the bodies of two illegal immigrants from Eastern Europe, who had been hiding out in a caravan in a remote part of the country, were recovered from a lake. They were examined and found to have a large number of seeds of Veratrum album in the stomach and detectable effects in the organs. Death was attributable to the plant rather than to drowning but there is no way of knowing whether the plant had been taken intentionally, in a suicide pact, or accidentally, being mistaken for something else, or in the hope that it would have psychoactive properties which have not been shown to be present.

Veratrum californicum, Californian hellebore, has been shown to produce birth defects in sheep, most notably formation of a single eye.

Folklore and Facts

Veratrum album, white hellebore

It is listed in Category 'B' on the Horticultural Trades Association list of potentially harmful plants but, for some reason, it is not a plant that many garden centres seem to stock. That is a little surprising given the usual leaf structure creates visual interest from the start of growth. It may be that its reputation has discouraged its cultivation.

Pliny the Elder suggested that care must be taken when gathering it because it is ‘oppressive to the head’ unless garlic has been eaten. Scholars have been known to purge themselves with white hellebore in order to sharpen their brains for study.

He says that the most potent plants are those which most quickly cause sneezing and it is a more terrifying plant than the Helleborus and could produce choking, sleeping, shivering in addition to violent purging which might require the use of an emetic to expel the excess Veratrum. The excessive effects caused physicians to use it in small amounts but Pliny favours using a large dose to get its effects over more quickly.

In American Medicinal Plants, Charles F. Millspaugh notes that in the seventeenth century, Native Americans used the plant as part of the process of finding new tribal chiefs. The contender whose stomach withstood the purgative effect the longest was deemed to be the strongest and, thus, fit to command the rest.


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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree