Poisonous Plants Every Forager Should Know: False Hellbore
Recently I had a run in with False hellbore. I’ve been an avid forager for years, but this is one plant I have never come across. Growing up in one area, then moving to a completely different one threw me off. I had purchased quite a few plant identifications guides, scoured the Internet for local native plants (both medicinal and edible). After identifying many of the spring shoots here, I felt confident that I was learning enough to go on a nature hike with my oldest son (5 years).
We wandered through the forest and came to a section of the creek behind our house that we had not explored before. A stand of luxurious plants were growing. The leaves looked similar to skunk cabbage in the youngest shoots, but also close to lady slipper which grows here. I pulled up one of the plants and smelled the root – it had a very faint garlic odor. Excited by the find I decided we would go home and look for the plant in our books and online.
It was a good thing that I had enough sense to not taste it in the field. The results could have been very bad. False hellbore in young stages is easily confused with other non-toxic plants, the slight garlic scent makes the confusion worse for newbie foragers (and some of us who are just new to an area).
False hellbore grows throughout southern Canada and the United States in moist forests, near creeks and streams, and even rivers. It has been spotted growing very close to similar looking plants such as skunk cabbage and the above mentioned lady slipper. The plant may grow in dense patches, is among the early shoots of spring, and grows very quickly.
The plant is full of alkaloids and should not even be touched without gloves. These alkaloids can be absorbed through the skin.
False hellbore poisoning symptoms:
- Rapid breathing
- Cold sweats
- Severe nausea (vomiting)
- Slowed heartbeat
- Some people have reported swollen eyelids as a first symptom.
Quick attention is needed if false hellbore is ingested. Activated charcoal is an inexpensive poisoning treatment. The type used in poisonings comes in a bottle and should be mixed with water. Follow the directions carefully, administer, and then head to the nearest emergency center. If you have handled the plant, wash your hands with a large amount of water as quickly as possible.
As all field guides point out – do not try a new plant without knowing what it is. Never allow children to try any wild plant until you have identified the plant, tried it yourself, and no bad results came about. Even then give small amounts and watch for a potential allergic reaction. There have been many recorded reaction s to plants that are considered edible. This is true with almost any food, peanuts for example. Wild food should be treated with care and respect. Learn the plants in your area and only harvest things that you know to be edible and non-poisonous. Take the time to teach your children both edible and poisonous plants so they know the difference.
As readers have pointed out in the past, plants can be hard to identify from a photo. I will add more photos of this plant as I take pictures of it in the wild.