Sunday, January 25, 2015
In the early days of medicine, two kinds of hellebore were recognized: black hellebore, which included various species of Helleborus, and white hellebore (now known as Veratrum album or "false hellebore", which belongs to a different plant family, the Melanthiaceae). "Black hellebore" was used by the ancients to treat paralysis, gout and particularly insanity, among other diseases. "Black hellebore" is also toxic, causing tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, a feeling of suffocation, swelling of the tongue and throat, emesis and catharsis, bradycardia (slowing of the pulse), and finally collapse and death from cardiac arrest. Research in the 1970s, however, showed that the roots of H. niger do not contain the cardiotoxic compounds helleborin, hellebrin, and helleborein that are responsible for the lethal reputation of "black hellebore". It seems that earlier studies may have used a commercial preparation containing a mixture of material from other species such as Helleborus viridis, green hellebore.
I just checked out a site about colors in plants. As you would expect, plants that are pollinated by insects and birds and butterflies are brightly colored and have sweet nectar. Those that are pollinated by air and wind have dull, non-descript flowers and bitter tasting nectar. The purple colors in hellebores are anthocyanins, which are a kind of flavanoid. So I suppose those early-bloomers such as maple flowers and hellebores are trying to attract some early-circulating insect, something that moves around in winter and earliest spring. Stink bugs? Lady bugs?