Common Names

Veratrum is commonly known as American white hellebore, Indian poke, devil's-bite, crow-poison, itchweed, and swamp-hellebore.

Lily Family (Liliaceae)

Description

False hellebore is a tall coarse perennial plant, from a foot and a half to eight feet in height. The stem grows from a short, thick, erect rootstock, and is leafy to the top. The leaves are broadly oval, plaited, strongly parallel-veined, entire, pointed, sheathing at the base, smooth on top, hairy beneath, six to twelve inches long, three to six inches broad, the upper becoming smaller and narrower. The inflorescence is a compound panicle from eight inches to two feet in length, the lower branches spreading or somewhat drooping. The numerous flowers are of a dull, yellowish-green colour, one-half to one inch broad; the perianth consists of six segments, with one stamen opposite each segment. The capsule is three lobed and three celled, containing numerous flat, winged seeds. The plant is found in bloom sometimes as early as May, but usually throughout June, July, and August.

Distribution

False hellebore is found in low lands, swamps, wet woods, and on moist slopes in Eastern Canada. It ascends to high altitudes in British Columbia, but it is best developed in mountain valleys.

Poisonous Properties

The whole plant is more or less poisonous, especially the short, thick rootstock, and coarse, fibrous roots. It contains an active poison known as veratrine, which belongs to the narcotic irritant group of poisons.

Animals Affected

False hellebore is poisonous to all animals. Cattle and horses avoid eating it wherever possible, as they do not relish the acrid, burning taste of the fresh plant; but young animals sometimes eat it, with fatal results. A. W. Sampson says that sheep eat it with impunity after a severe frost.

Human Poisoning

As false hellebore is used in the preparation of certain medicines, cases of poisoning have occurred from overdoses, Accidental poisoning of man from eating the plant has also been reported. In one case a whole family was poisoned by using the young leaves as greens in mistake for those of the marsh marigold (Caltha palustris L.). However, fatalities among human beings are rare, as the drug induces spontaneous vomiting. The hairy leaves are very irritating to the skin, and children often suffer by coming in contact with them.

Symptoms

In general the symptoms of poisoning are salivation, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, cold perspiration, depression of the heart, loss of sight, and finally death from paralysis of the heart.

Remedy and Means of Control: Professional advice should be obtained wherever possible. Treatment should be pursued by heart stimulants, such as alcohol or ammonia, and the external application of warmth. Demulcents, such as raw linseed oil, are given to relieve local irritation of the digestive organs. Young animals should be given warm water to assist vomiting and to wash out the stomach. Rest and quiet should be enforced. The roots of false hellebore should be grubbed out in the early spring when the ground is soft. Where the land is badly overrun by this weed, drainage and cultivation is the best method. In all cases seeding should be prevented by cutting off the tops when the plant is in its first bloom. On large areas of mountainous districts, cutting or grubbing would seem impracticable. Such infested land should not be used as a pasture. A. W. Sampson contends that sheep may be pastured on such land in the autumn, after the tops have been frozen and when the ground is hard enough to prevent the poisonous rootstock from being pulled up.