National Park Mystery Plant 10 Revealed: It's False Hellebore

Note the trademark spike, spiral leaves, and branch-end flowers of this false hellebore specimen. Wikimedia Commons photo.

We gave you these clues and challenged you to identify Mystery Plant 10:

• You do it with a hand auger, and I don't mean drill.

• You don't expect a man of that caliber to be so dull.

• That's a lie!

• Heaven for the climate, hell for society.

You were also given a bonus clue (no extra charge):

• Pushing up daisies is not a doctor-approved form of exercise.

Here is how to put it together and come up with the correct answer, which is false hellebore.

Heaven for the climate, hell for society.

Most people use a power drill to bore holes in wood, but you can use a hand auger for the same purpose.

Caliber is the diameter of the bore of a a firearm or artillery piece, usually expressed in hundredths or thousandths of an inch (for example, .45 caliber). A man who is dull is a bore.

If it's a lie, it's false.

The bonus clue hints that this plant is very poisonous. Indeed, false hellebore is highly toxic and can injure livestock and seriously harm or even kill a person who ingests too much of it.

False hellebore (Veratrum viride) is an herbaceous perennial belonging to the lily family. The mature false hellebore plant has an upright stem from two to six feet tall and leaves that are spirally arranged. When in bloom it bears large clusters of greenish-yellow flowers on branch ends. Many people would consider this plant pleasing -- or at least interesting -- to look at.

There are two major varieties of false hellebore: Veratrum viride var. viride grows in eastern North America from southern Quebec as far south as northern Georgia. Veratrum viride var. eschscholzianum grows in western North America from Alaska and Northwest Territory south along the Coast Range to the Pacific Northwest and northern California. Its native range extends inland to areas of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Both varieties are absent deep in the continental interior and further south.

False hellebore is found in dozens of National Park System units, including Denali National Park & Preserve, Mount Rainier National Park, Acadia National Park, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to name just a few.

In some high elevation and riparian areas of the mountainous western states, the range of Veratrum viride var. eschscholzianum overlaps with that of a close relative, California false hellebore (Veratrum californicum) -- aka skunk cabbage, cow cabbage, corn lily, or wild corn. As a practical matter, many find it convenient to call all three varieties false hellebore and let it go at that.

False hellebore prefers damp or wet soils in meadows, hillsides, sunny stream banks, seepages, and open-canopy forests. In the southern Appalachians it can be found at elevations as high as 5,000 feet or so. In the western U.S. it has been found at elevations as high as 8,000 feet or so.

This plant has many colloquial names, including American white hellebore, blue hellebore, big hellebore, Indian hellebore, Indian poke, tickleweed, itchweed, devils bite, duck retten, bear corn, and poor Annie.

Whatever you may call it, you don't want to mess with it. False hellebore contains steroidal alkaloids that can be very dangerous when eaten in large enough quantities (varies with size, age, physical condition, and other factors). The roots, rhizomes, and young shoots are particularly toxic.

Symptoms of false hellebore poisoning include burning sensation in the mouth and throat, excessive salivation, cold sweat, headache, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain and gastrointestinal distress (diarrhea, gas), slow respiration and breathing difficulty, slow and irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, and spasms or convulsions. If not promptly and effectively treated, false hellebore poisoning can cause general paralysis and even death. It is also known to cause birth defects.

Prompt medical attention is vital and can make all the difference. A good case in point occurred earlier this year when five people who had been hiking the Chilkoot Trail (part of the Alaska component of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park ) were evacuated by helicopter to a Skagway, Alaska hospital for emergency medical treatment after they consumed small quantities of false hellebore root bulbs. Although one was in critical condition for a while and another was becoming seriously sick, all five were successfully treated and released.

Since false hellebore is harmful to livestock as well as humans, and can be invasive -- especially in overgrazed areas -- grazers consider it a range weed. It causes severe poisoning in sheep and can also affect goats and cattle. If eaten during early pregnancy, it causes deformities in the offspring.

Comments

We've had something thank looks like this plant growing in a neighbors yar--in Somerset County, PA.-- for years; but don't recall seeing it bloom. I thought it is an interesting plan; and wondered what it was, but had no way to find out until now. I'll have to wait untill summer to check and I'll look for flowers, but won't touch. I copied the picture and if I'm still not sure, I'll photograp the plant and send them to our local Extension Office. The plant offers no threat to local childre or livestock and this time and I see no reason to destroy it. I came across this researching skunk cabbage; which fasinates me for some reason. I'm going to write an article for children about it. False Hellebore maybecome a sidebar or another article.

I was on my my to get wild leeks when I saw what I thought was skunk cabbage. I had heard from several people that you could eat skunk cabbage and so being the "pioneer woman" that I thought I was I gathered a shopping bag stuffed full of the young 6 inch plants. Later that night I sautayed them with butter and a touch of vinegar. Ate the whole panful. I experienced every symptom plus some and it''s only by the grace of God that I'm alive today. I was nautious by the time I fineshed eating. Within 5 min. my face was flushed, my throat and mouth were getting hot and I became deathly ill with vomiting and diarhea. I tried to make a run for it to the hospital but developed tunnel vision and could barely see. Breathing became difficult and I pulled into the first place where I saw a houselight and staggered to the door asking them to call 911. Within 10 - 15 min the ambulance was there and by then I was in hypovolemic shock due to a loss of fluids because of vomiting and diahrea, hypothermic shock due to a drop in my temp. plus it was only 40 degrees outside. My throat started closing up and I wasn't getting enough air. I was incoherrant so they thought I was on drugs. I had no coordination and by the time they loaded me on ther ambulance my hands and feet were numb. Within minutes I was numb from my chin down and semi paralyzed. They lost my pulse for more than several minutes but I was still talking by the grace of God or they would have probably jump started my heart. I was in and out of consciousness. I had a close encounter with my Maker and a conversation with Him for about 20 min. It has changed my life. I went through 2 bags of saline solution per ambulance IV and no charcoal was needed to make me vomit as I had 7 episodes of vomiting and diahrea before the ambulance loaded me in. It began at 10:00 pm when I fineshed eating and I was stable enough to leave the E.R. by 2:00 am to go home and check on my poor dog who had eaten the last few bites that I left on the plate before I set it on the floor for him. He lived also but was sick for two days. I slept for the most part of the next few days myself. Thankful to be saved. Cindy

That's plenty scary, Anon. I'm glad you came out OK on the other side of this misadventure. Your story should serve as a cautionary tale to anybody who gathers wild foods. While nearly everybody knows that you need to be super-careful when gathering mushrooms, too many people aren't aware that many other things that can be collected in the wild -- or in your yard, for that matter -- can make you deathly ill if you eat them. Be careful out there.

I came across this lovely looking plant in the woods and was fooled into thinking they were the same plant as leeks I had encountered earlier. (As it turns out the leeks were on higher ground and the hellebore on lowland marshy ground.) I used them in a dish as I would have used scallions--maybe four stalks fried. By the end of the meal, I noticed my tongue was tingling and while cleaning up I started to feel sick--thick saliva. Severe and persistant vomiting soon began and didn't stop for two hours. At one point, my vision was effected--sort of an orange sparkling light around the periphery. Meanwhile, my wife became sick and the vomiting was so severe and constant that neither of us were able to check on the other. Her extremities became cold, she experienced heart palpatations and tingling in her arms. Eventually, we were well enough to crawl into bed exhausted. Later, we took charcoal tablets. We needed to rehydrate as well. We felt fairly normal after several hours. (I'm staying anonymous because I feel pretty stupid and also pretty lucky we're okay. Be careful out there!)

'Thanks for sharing, Anon. Your experience shows how easy it is to mistake this plant for a tasty (near) look-alike. I'm glad this ordeal had a happy outcome.