California falsehellebore (What's in a name?)

Also known as "Skunk cabbage," the California falsehellebore grows up to 7 feet tall, although most in Grant County are 3-5 feet in height. The Eagle/DICK FIELD

Weed watch

California falsehellebore (Veratrum californicum) is an interesting plant with an even more interesting name. What the #&?% is a hellebore, let alone a false one which came from California?

A hellebore, according to Webster, is a poisonous herb of the lily family; also the dried rhizome of a hellebore or powder extract of this containing alkaloids used as a cardiac and respiratory depressant and as an insecticide. Veratrum, the Latin genus name means "true black" which is the color of its roots. According to information I received from Shaun Robertson, local representative from the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, the Bannock Tribes used tea from the cured root as birth control. The tea was drunk early in a pregnancy to abort the fetus. The plant was also used in suicides. The root crushed raw was placed on rattlesnake bites and let dry. It was repeated several times to draw out the poison from the bite.

False hellebore is truly a poisonous plant to humans and livestock. The most astounding effects are on sheep. When grazed during pregnancy the fetuses become deformed and often abort. Live births are often with a condition called "monkey face" because the face, head and brain are deformed. Fetuses aborted are often called "Cyclops" with both eyes in the center of the head.

The plant is also known as "Skunk cabbage." It is a tall, stout perennial plant up to 7 feet tall. However most of them in Grant County are 3-5 feet in height. They have broad leaves, 3-6 inches and 6-12 inches in length. The leaves have pleated, parallel veins. The white to yellowish-green flowers are in racemes at the top of the plant.

In Grant County they are found in moist mountain meadows. There are populations along the upper reaches of the North Fork Malheur and Middle Fork of John Day Rivers and near Granite.

Dick Field is coordinator of the Grant Weed Control. He can be contacted at 575-1554.

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