Stinking Hellebore

(Helleborus foetidus) Poisonous, of course, like all the hellebores. Even so, it was a protective plant for the homestead in early times, when it was also believed to be an antidote against madness (Genders.1971). Considering the toxic nature of the plant, one wonders how it was used, and how many people were killed while being treated. Still, it did have its domestic uses, in pest control, for people used to powder the roots and mix them with meal to lay down and poison the mice (Drury. 1992). There were veterinary uses too, some of them lasting until quite recently, like using it to condition horses, and sheep too, apparently, in the Chipping Camden area (Brill). It was used for the same purpose in East Anglia, where the horsemen were proud to have their horses' coats shine (G E Evans. 1969). More seriously, cattle were treated with it when they coughed. It was done by making a hole in the dewlap with a setter, or thread (hence the name Setter-grass, or Setterwort (Grigson. 1955)), and a length of hellebore root inserted to irritate the flesh and keep it running. Or sometimes a few rolled-up leaves were used (Hartley & Ingilby). Green Hellebore could be employed equally well for this operation. It was the way, too, to treat a pig that had been bewitched, by making a hole in its ear and putting a piece of the stem there (Lovett).

Used in human medicine, the results are extremely uncertain. Hellebrin and helleborin, both contained in this plant, have been used as a cardiac stimulant (Cullum), but the really notorious usage was for worms in children. Thornton wrote that a decoction of about a drachm of the green leaves, or 15 grains of the dried, is given to children and repeated three mornings, when it seldom fails expelling the round worms, or "a tea-spoonfull of the juice, mixed with syrup, may be given for that purpose". Gilbert White mentions this use, and recognised it as "a violent remedy ... to be administered with caution". In the following century it was condemned as "far too uncertain in the degree of its action to be safely administered" (C P Johnson).

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