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Veratrum

Scientific Name(S): Veratrum species (Family: Liliaceae)

Botany

Veratrum album or white hellebore (WH) is a perennial that has a wide distribution throughout Europe, northern Asia, and North America. It grows to 5 feet and is characterized by a hairy stem. Its large, oval, yellow­green leaves alternate around the stem and have a slightly hairy undersurface. The lower leaves can reach a foot in length. Its greenish flowers bloom in June and July. The rhizome has an acrid taste and onion-like odor. The fruit is a capsule.

Veratrum viride or green hellebore (GH) can grow to 8 feet in height and is found in damp areas such as marshes and swamps. It has oval to linear leaves, with green flowers on short stalks. Its habitat is northern North America, west of the Rockies. The dried rhizome is the part of the plant used. The plant's flowers are greenish yellow in color.

WH resembles GH in structure and appearance (ie, similar leaves), although its external color is much lighter. The rhizomes of the species are histologically, chemically, and toxicologically similar. WH may be more poisonous and contain more alkaloids than GH.

Uses

Veratrum has been used to treat high blood pressure, but is so toxic--even at standard dosage levels--that it is no longer used medicinally.

Side Effects

Veratrum is irritating and ingestion can result in a burning sensation in the upper abdominal area followed by salivation, vomiting, gastric erosion, hypotension, and bradycardia. There have been several poisonings reported in humans with the different species, but all had favorable outcomes.

History

Veratrum comes from the Latin vere meaning "truly," and ater meaning "black." In 1900, both species (V. album and V. viride) were recognized.

The use of V. album centers around its toxic potential. It had been used as a poison during Roman times and an extract of the plant was used as an arrow tip poison. Small doses had been used to treat symptoms of cholera, often with less than desirable effects. White hellebore had been used in place of Colchicum for the treatment of gout, to aid in the treatment of hypertension, and externally to treat herpetic lesions, but its use has always been limited by its toxicity.

Green hellebore derives its name from the Latin viride meaning "green." This species was used by certain Indian tribes to treat congestion and arthritic pain. European settlers used the plant as a delousing agent. Like WH, GH is also highly toxic and rarely used in herbal medicines today except homeopathy in some cases.

Chemistry

Important alkaloids of both species in general include esters of highly hydroxylated parent alkanolamine bases, mainly cervine, germine, and protoverine. Other alkanolamines include jervine, rubijervine, pseudojervine, and isorubijervine. Alkaloids present in both species include veratrobasine and geralbine. Veratrum alkaloids (cyclopamine, cycloposine, jervine, and veratramine) have been evaluated by carbon-13 and proton nuclear magnetic resonance spectra analyses. Analysis of jervine from Veratrum species has also been performed using densitometry, thin layer, and liquid chromatography methods. In addition, alkaloids from 17 species of veratrum have been identified and reviewed.

White hellebore has been found to contain 2 related alkaloids, protoveratrine A and B. The rhizome contains about 1.5% total alkaloids, which also include germerine, jervine, pseudojervine, and veratrosine. Minor and other alkaloids have been described. Non-alkaloidal compounds have also been isolated from WH "above ground" parts and include cinnamic, isoferulic, caffeic, chlorogenic, fumaric, and succinic acids, and tectochrysin. Organic acids veratric and vanillic are also present. Other reports concerning WH-specific chemistry include: Phenolic compounds from aerial plant parts, isolation of flavonoids chrysoeriol and apigenin, determination of beta-adrenoceptor agonist, "o-acetyljervine" and identification of glycoside veratramarine. Three alkaloid groups are present in:

  1. Esters of steroidal bases (alkamines) with organic acids, including cevadine, germidine, germitrine, neogermitrine, neoprotoveratrine, protoveratrine, and veratridine;
  2. The glucosides of the alkamines pseudojervine and veratrosine;
  3. The alkamines themselves including germine, jervine, rabijervine, and veratramine. Alkaloid mixtures alkavervir and cryptenamine are also specifically mentioned as being constituents in WH.

Other Veratrum species chemistry is available, including vertaline B structure from V. taliense, steroidal alkaloid isolation from V. californicum, isolation of alkaloids verazine and angeloylzygadenine from V. maacki, and isolation of a new indole alkaloid echinuline from V. nigrum.

Summary

Veratrum includes many species, most notably V. album and V. viride, which are similar. Their chemistry includes numerous alkaloids, some of which are toxic. Both species have been used for their antihypertensive properties. Different constituents may cause bradycardia, respiratory depression, or stimulation of peripheral blood flow. Other actions of veratrum include use as an insecticide and as a cytotoxic agent. V. album is considered toxic, with many reports of hypotension, bradycardia, and gastrointestinal distress. The toxicity of veratrum is so high that its use is not recommended.


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