The California corn lily or white false hellebore, California false hellebore (Veratrum californicum Durand, 1855) is a herbaceous species belonging to the Liliaceae family.
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
Species V. californicum.
The following varieties are recognized within the species:
– Veratrum californicum var. californicum Durand;
– Veratrum californicum var. caudatum (A.Heller) C.L.Hitchc..
The term Veratrum comes from vērātrum, which designated various toxic and medicinal plants, belonging to different genera, united by being considered remedies against epilepsy and insanity: some species of hellebore, known as black hellebore, and the common hellebore, called white hellebore, distinguished by the color of the roots. The term is presumably of pre-Latin origin and has been connected to the Proto-Indo-European root *wreyt- to twist, to writhe; explanations such as truly dark vero atrum or the connection with verum (because the plant would be the “true” remedy for madness or would clear the mind) fall within the scope of paraetymology.
The specific epithet californicum is in reference to California due to its origins or place of distribution.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Veratrum californicum is an extremely poisonous plant native to western North America, including the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, up to Washington and south to Durango;
Its habitat is that of rather humid soils and can cover vast areas in dense humid woods, swamps, near watercourses or humid meadows, where it grows, depending on the latitude, from sea level up to around 4,000 metres.
Veratrum californicum is a perennial herbaceous species that can reach a height of 1.5 to 2 meters.
The leaves, of a bright green colour, can measure from 20 to 30 cm in length and from 7 to 15 cm in width, are lanceolate in shape and with deep vertical veins.
The flowers are cream colored, growing in clusters at the top of a single unbranched stem in a manner reminiscent of corn. Each flower has 6 white tepals, a green center, 6 stamens, and a 3-branched pistil.
The antesis is usually in the middle of summer, from July to August.
The fruits are follicari, schizocarpic fruits formed by monocarps similar to follicles, derived from carpels grown in the ovary which separate when ripe and dehisce along their ventral suture; they turn black as they ripen.
Veratrum californicum is a perennial plant, highly poisonous in all its parts.
To grow, this plant needs deep, fertile and humus-rich soil that retains moisture. It can grow in full sun in moist soil but prefers a partial shade location. It does not like dry soils and prefers northern exposures.
It normally grows on damp and open meadows and hills at altitudes between 1500 and 4000 metres. It emerges as soon as the snow melts in spring. The flowers appear in July and August and the plant produces seeds in September.
Propagation is by seed. The seed, unless stored in moist sand at about 4°C, has a short-lived viability.
The seed is to be sown in shaded and humid areas.
Stored seeds need to be stratified but can be very slow to germinate. Germination can also be irregular for freshly sown seed, usually occurring within 3 – 12 months at 15°C but can be much longer.
The plant produces only one leaf in its first year, this forms an overwintering bulb. It takes up to 10 years for the plant to reach maturity.
It can also be propagated by division between March and mid-spring or in October.
Customs and Traditions –
Veratrum californicum is a plant known by various names, such as: California corn lily, white false hellebore, California false hellebore.
This plant is poisonous from the moment it begins to grow but toxicity decreases as the plants mature. The roots are 5 to 10 times more poisonous than the leaves or stems. The poisonous substances contained are steroid alkaloids.
The plant is a source of jervina, muldamine and cyclopamine, teratogenic agents that can cause prolonged gestation associated with congenital defects, such as holoprosencephaly and cyclopia, in animals such as sheep, goats, cattle, horses and other mammals that graze it.
If sheep, goats, and cows eat it early in pregnancy, the plant causes deformities in the offspring. Sheep and goats eat leaves and tops of plants easily. Cattle can eat it if other forages are scarce.
Poisoning can occur within 2 to 3 hours after an animal has eaten the plant. Sheep may show mild or marked signs of poisoning after eating 150 to 300 grams of green stems or leaves. If pregnant ewes eat V. californicum on the 14th day after breeding, the pups may have congenital head deformities. These offspring, commonly called monkey-faced lambs, may have a protruding lower jaw, an underdeveloped upper jaw, a proboscis nose, cyclopia, hydrocephaly, and a variety of other eye deformities. When ewes eat the plant between days 17 and 19, they give birth to lambs suffering from tracheal stenosis. Ewes that consume hellebore between days 28 and 31 give birth to lambs with shortened metatarsal and metacarpal bones. Ewes carrying severely deformed fetuses may fail to calve at the end of the normal gestation period. The fetus then continues to grow to an abnormal size and may eventually kill the ewe unless the lamb is delivered by caesarean section. Sheep poisoned by hellebore can be successfully treated with epinephrine.
Signs of poisoning manifest themselves as irregular gait, vomiting, fast and irregular heartbeat, slow and shallow breathing and finally coma and convulsions.
Losses of newborn animals due to deformities can be avoided by keeping sheep, goats and cattle away from this plant during the early stages of gestation.
V. californicum has been controlled by applying 2,4-D amine salts at the rate of 1 kg to less than 0.5 hectares, with a second treatment in certain cases. However, the use of herbicides produces worse negative effects on soil microbiology, entomofauna and fauna in general, as well as on the floristic composition of habitats, for which the most suitable remedy is mechanical weeding and avoiding letting animals graze in these areas, especially in certain periods.
Method of Preparation –
Veratrum californicum is a plant that, although poisonous, was often used medicinally by a number of native North American Indian tribes who used it primarily as an external application to treat wounds, etc.
It also had some reputation as a contraceptive.
It is little, if at all, used in modern herbal medicine. However any use of this plant, especially the internal one, must be carried out after consulting a doctor.
The root is analgesic, disinfectant and febrifuge.
A decoction has been used in the treatment of venereal disease.
The roots were grated then chewed and the juice swallowed as a cure for colds.
A poultice of the crushed raw root has been used as a treatment for rheumatism, boils, sores, cuts, swellings and burns.
The dried and ground root has been used as a dressing on bruises and sores.
A poultice of the chewed root was applied to rattlesnake bites to extract the venom.
The powdered root has been rubbed on the face to relieve the pain of toothache.
A decoction of the root has been taken orally by both men and women as a contraceptive.
A dose of one teaspoon of this decoction three times a day for three weeks is said to ensure permanent sterility in women.
Among other uses, it is reported that the dried and powdered root is used as an insecticide and pesticide. It is also effective against caterpillars and mammals, so great caution is advised.
– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.
Attention: Pharmaceutical applications and food uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not represent in any way a medical prescription; we therefore decline any responsibility for their use for healing, aesthetic or food purposes.