Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on May 23, 1976 · Page 95
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May 23, 1976

Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 95

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Charleston, West Virginia
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Sunday, May 23, 1976
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True False 'Ellebers' By Earl L. Core Went Virginia University In swampy m o u n t a i n woods through the month of April we note conspicuous clumps of broad, green leaves that have just pushed through the ground With increasing warmth and sunshine the handsome, veiny, many-plaited leaves unfold and enlarge, and a stout stem, two to seven feet high, begins to develop while the'trees and shrubs are still leafless. Although the tall stems and bright green foliage are quite noticeable at this time of year, the dingy, dull greenish flowers, appearing irfJune, rarely attract attention, unless by their lack of beauty. . Appalachian mountain folk call this plant elleber and I was puzzled in trying to find it in the dictionary until I realized that it is one more example of the scores of names bequeathed to us from our Elizabethan forefathers, who were early settlers in America, and that the word had been transmitted to us with the cockney custom of (dropping.the initial "h" -- the word is really .hellebore. Oblivious to all this, we have given topographical- features in West Virginia such names as Elleber Ridge and Elliber Run (in Pocahontas County). . . . ' . . ,'.:.., What is hellebore? .''".'.'. ' , :1 There are..maSjij kih,ds. The American hellebore, 'the species found in ,W$sV Virginia, belongs to the lily'family .and hiaslhe scientific name of Veratrum viride. It is also known as Indian poke, although not at all related to our familiar pokeweed. . ·Perhaps as many as 50 species of Veratrum are found, mostly in cool parts of the Northern hemisphere. These include Veratrum californi- cum, of the Pacific Northwest, Veratrum album, the European white hellebore,, and Veratrum ni- grum, of Northern Europe and Asia. Hellebore is from the Latin helle- borus, which in turn was derived from the ancient Greek-hellebores. The Greek word perhaps came from hellps, a fawn, and boros, food, and is akin to the Greek ele- phos, deer. The American hellebore would not make very good food for fawns, however, for there is strong evidence that it i's a very poisonous plant. Animals, as a general rule, do not eat the plants because of their sharp burning taste. It is a common sight to see mountain pastures grazed close to the ground except for scattered clumps of large hellebores that are left untouched. But sheep and other animals, espe- . cially when grass is scarce, are said to sometimes eat them, with fatal results. Even chickens are reported to have been poisoned by eating the green tops or seeds. ' W a l t e r Conrad Muenscher ("Poisonous Plant* of the United States"), enumerates symptoms of hellebore poisoning: , , ' - , . ·",''.. "Salivation,, vomiting or "at-' 2m CHARLESTON. ' Veratum viride (false hellebore) tempts at vomiting, .purging, abdominal pain, muscular weakness, difficulty in walking, loss of power and general paralyses, muscular tremors and spasms, and occasionally convulsions. The pulse is unaltered at first, but later becomes infrequent and compressible and finally rapid, threadlike and running. The respiration is shallow, the temperature is reduced, the skin is cold and clammy; there is semi-consciousness, loss of sight, and death from asphyxia." Several toxic principles, Muenscher says, have been found in the European species, and probably occur in the American as well. Among these are veralridine, vera- trine, cevadine, jervine, and vera- tralbine. Veratrum viride, our West Virginia hellebore, also occurs in the Rocky Mountains and north as far as Alaska along the Pacific Coast. John J. and Frank C. Craighead, with Ray J. Davis, in their Field Guide to" Rocky'-Mountain -Wdd- flowers} 'say^that the^'alkaloids found in the shoots arid roots were used by the Indians to slow the heartbeat and to lower the blood pressure. They, knew that a .large dose was fatal. . . The authors Of Rocky Mountain Wildflowers continues. . "Livestock, deer and elk are sometimes killed by eating the plant. The seeds are poisonous to chickens and may likewise affect other bird life. The poison decreases as the plant matures, and after the foliage has frosted and dried it is apparently quite harmless to livestock. The plants are dried, powdered, and sold as the garden insecticide hellebore. Elk bed down and make wallows in the moist meadows and seepage areas where this plant abounds/' Other, at least former, uses of the alkaloids found in Veratrum are as a base for some so-called Persin insect powders, and as saba- dilla powder, made' from pulverized seeds of a Mexican species, Veratrum sabadilla. The latter was applied externally in cases of neuralgia-, rheumatism, gout, and drop: ' ' The flowers of Veratrum viride are very numerous, in large terminal branching clusters, rather small, up to an inch across. The three sepals and three petals are colored alike, greenish-yellow, and are not conspicuous. The flowers bloom from late May until early July. Skunk cabbage often grows in the same habitats with the hellebore and is sometimes mistaken for it in early spring. The later habit is quite different, however. After all this discussion of the American hellebore it may come as ' somewhat of a surprise to the reader to learn that our species is only the false hellebore. The true hellebore belongs in the genus Helleborus and is not even in the same family as the false hellebore, being a member of the.crow- foot or buttercup family and not the lilv family. About two dozen species of Hellebores are known, all native to the Old. World. Some of them are interesting horticultural plants. It they are members of such widely separated fimilies (one of monocots, the other of dicots), what do they have in common, suggesting the application of the name hellebore to both groups?. My only suggestion is that they may both have green flowers! the plants do not resemble each other at all. . Perhaps the best known member of the genus Hellebor.us is ft. niger, the Christmas rose. It is.not, of , course,"a true rose, but it does bloom in the winter," often as early as Christmas. The foliage is dark green and attractive, and the entire plant is low and spreading, forming a mound hardly more than a foot high. Native to wooded mountain sections of the Austrian "Alps, it is often grown as a novelty, to produce flowers through the winter months. The flowers have.very small;.inconspicuous petals, but the sepals are brightly colored, resembling petals. The flowers are large, two. to three inches across when fully .expanded, pure white and very showy at first, becoming pinkish with age. They, may last from December until March. myrrh, she humbly presented her flowers to the holy Infant, who stretched out a hand to touch them. As His fingers lightly touched the immaculate flowers they immediately changed to a delicate pink: Christmas roses are not easy to grow. They are perennial and once established, should remain -for some time, producing, flowers at that very season of the year when there are no competitors. Their requirements are quite different from those of other garden perennials, which endure bright sunshine through the summer. But the young foliage of Christmas roses is quite tender through the spring months and wilts quickly in wind and sun, even though there may be considerable moisture.in the ground. Later the leaves become leathery, but even then, through the summer, shade helps to keep the foliage cool and preserve the soil moisture. Natural shade is best, if the plants are riot too close to trees, where the competition for moisture and minerals becomes greater. Hellebores like a rich, well-drained soil; the addition of well-rotted barnyard manure or leaf mold is helpful. Planting is best in early autumn; root growth is rapid during the cool autumn months, preparing the plants for the rigors.of the first winter. Flowers will probably not appear during the first winter after transplanting. . One of the beautiful legends involving Christmas concerns the Christmas rose. According to this tale, the wise men met a shepherdess, a little girl named Madelon. Enraptured at the wondrous story of the birth of Christ, she was heartbroken because she had no gift to .offer. As she was crying, suddenly an angel appeared beside her, inquiring the reason for her sadness. Madelon explained that she wanted to pay homage to the newly-born Babe, but, since it was winter, she had not even a single, beautiful flower to offer. The angel waved her arm and a gorgeous bunch of snowy white Christmas roses appeared. Madelon hurried off after the wise men towards Bethlehem, carrying her bunch of flowers. After the. wise, men's- of- fenngs'iqf gold, frankincense^ and Another European species, Hel- leborus viridis, the green hellebore, with green flowers, has been planted in flower gardens in West Virginia for a long time and has escaped to the wild to grow as a wild flower. It has been found in the wild in Barbour, Greenbrier, Hardy, Preston, Summers, Taylor, Upshur, and Webster counties, and doubtless-grows in several other counties as well. The green hellebore is from one to two feet tall, with palmately divided leaves. The sepals are about an inch long, greenish-yellow, petal -- like in appearance. The true petals are very small. so tar as we know, the green hellebore was first discovered in West Virginia in the wild by James McSparrin Gamble (1838-1917), a physician and naturalist of Moorefield, who served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He did much botanizing in the South Branch Valley and presented his collection of; dried plants to West Virginia University in 1891. It was from specimens sent to Asa Gray, at Harvard University, that the location "W.Va." was credited for this species in the 6th edition of Gray's Manual published in 1889. Several other species of Hellebo- .rus flower during the bleak-winter months. Heleborus niger is the first to bloom, its pure white flowers starting to open in some sites in late November, continuing until spring. Helleborus foetidus, bearsfoot or stinking hellebore, a native of western Europe, is the next to. bloom, expanding its pale green flowers near drifts of golden, early-flowering daffodils. Helleborus orientalis, the Lenten roge, from Asia Minor, with freckled greenish-white to pink, rose, or maroon flowers, extends the blooming season well into spring, while the regal Helleborus lividus, .from Corsica and Sardinia, with chartreuse flowers, is the last to bloom, lasting.until May. Like the false hellebores, the true hellebores contain powerful alkaloids, some of which have been used -medicinally', although not not-.; able.as poisons.:.:- ; -.;!.;;; ··:» ;._ ;! A'm 2.V,/l7fi.-N(,,)dnv Cwzcttt-Vnil

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