Indian Poke

A genus of about 45 species of perennials, fround throughout the northern hemisphere. They have poisonous black rhizomes, handsome pleated foliage, and branched spires of star-shaped flowers. Several species are grown as ornamentals for shady borders, acid beds or woodland areas. The two main species used medicinally are the American green hellebore, Veratrum viride, and the European white hellebore, V. album. Native N Americans cured wounds with the powdered roots of V. viride, having first smeared the injury with animal fat, and eased muscular aches and pains by abraiding and greasing the skin first before applying the powder. They also used the powder to relieve toothache. Settlers used crushed fresh roots, mixed with lard, to soothe itching, and as a decoction to remove head lice. Boiled with corn, they made and effective poison for crows. Veratrum album was once used as a remedy for mania and epilepsy, and a substitute for Colchicum autumnale (See, Meadow Saffron) as a cure for gout. Taken internally, Veratrum is a drastic purgative and causes violent sneezing. Even moderate amounts cause serious poisoning. According to Mrs Grieve (A Modern Herbal, 1931), V. viride has a different chemistry from V. album and is less likely to cause intestinal distress. Both contain alkaloids that have been used in the treatment of hypertension but have been superseded by drugs that have fewer and less serious side effects. They also have been used as insecticides and parasiticides. The name "hellebore", and Old English word for herb used to cure madness, is used for many unrelated herbs, such as Adonis vernalis (See, Spring Adonis) and Helleborus nigra (See, Black Hellebore).

Rhizomatous perennial with ovate to broadly elliptic, pleated leaves, to 30cm (12in) long. Green to yellow-green, star-shaped flowers, to 2cm (¾in) across, are borne in branched spikes in summer.

Common Name:
Indian Poke
Other Names:
Green Hellebore, American Hellebore
Botanical Name:
Veratrum viride
Native Location:
Easterm N America
Rich, moist, well-drained soil in partial shade.
By seed sown when ripe; by division in autumn or early spring.
Roots are collected in autumn and dried for fluid extracts and powder, and also or the extraction of alkaloids.
2m (6ft)
60cm (24in)
Parts Used:
Roots and Rhizomes
An emetic, cathartic herb that causes sneezing and lowers blood pressure. It is insecticidal.
Medicinal Uses:
Formerly used internally for pneumonia, peritonitis, arteriosclerosis, and hypertension associated with toxemia in pregnancy. Externally as a parasiticide for head lice; also in veterinary medicine to destroy parasites. Rarely used now.
All parts are highly toxic if ingested.
Contact with foliage may cause skin irritation.
Prolonged handling may cause systemic poisoning.
Excess causes diarrhea and vomiting with severe retching, shallow breathing, pallor, perspiration, and potentially fatal collapse. For use by qualified practitioners only.
Encylopedia of Herbs by Deni Brown Copyright ©: 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited pps. 400-401