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Helleborus foetidus, a plant native to Europe, is a member of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, and is more commonly known as hellebore, stinking hellebore, or bear’s foot. The plant is toxic and professional care should be sought if large quantities are consumed. It earned the name stinking hellebore because, if the leaves are crushed, they give off an odor that is similar to the smell of decaying meat. Although it is toxic, it is used in some recipes and can be beneficial as a laxative and for cardiac conditions.
The plant is stemless and has long stalks with divided leaves. These leaves are typically glossy and thick. Its green, bell-shaped flowers tend to appear in late winter. The flowers bloom on stalks that rise high above the foliage, and do not have a malodorous smell. As an ornamental plant, helleborus foetidus is popular because it is an evergreen, and its color tends to deepen and intensify during the winter months.
Every part of helleborus foetidus is toxic. The plant contains toxic glycosides that can cause delirium, excess salivation, abdominal cramps, and vomiting when ingested in large doses. It can also cause skin irritation.
Helleborus foetidus likes to grow in shady areas and is common to find it in scrubland and woodland areas. It tends to be a hardy plant and is drought resistant. Slugs may be a problem, because they tend to like to eat its leaves. Ants are often found around the plant, and it has been suggested that they not only aid the plant by distributing its seeds, but are attracted by the elaiosome coating on the seeds. Elaiosomes are fleshy structures that cover the seeds, and are rich in protein and lipids.
While the plant is usually viewed as too dangerous to ingest, helleborus foetidus has been part of the medical pharmacopeia for centuries. Dioscorides, author of the 1st century Greek herbal encyclopedia De Materia Medica, recommended hellebore for skin ailments and to reduce phlegmatic conditions.
This plant contains cardiac glycosides. These can be used as cardiac stimulants and are similar to digitalis in the plant foxglove, or Digitalis purpurae. Digitalis is a cardiac glycoside used to increase the contractions of the heart in patients who suffer from congestive heart failure.
As an herbal remedy, helleborus foetidus is also a purgative and a diuretic. It has been described as violently narcotic, meaning that it induces sleep and puts patients into a stupor. Its narcotic properties are the reason why it was traditionally used to treat nervous disorders and cases of hysteria. Hysteria can best be described as an extreme emotional state of mind that is characterized by extreme anxiety, nervousness, and fear.