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Poisonous Plants Every Forager Should Know: False Hellbore

Updated on April 25, 2012
Mature False Hellbore
Mature False Hellbore | Source

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
  • Dizziness
  • Severe nausea (vomiting)
  • Slowed heartbeat
  • Death
  • 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.

Author Note

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.


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    • Julie Fletcher profile image

      Julie Fletcher 5 years ago

      Hi again, ata1515. You know, I have foraged in Buffalo. I lived in South Buffalo and there is a large wooded area off S. Ogden where a branch of the Buffalo rive heads towards Caz creek. There's garlic mustard, a hidden stand of leeks, tiny green onions, a ton of wild grapes, and a big black cherry tree that is hard to get to. Oh, there is also staghorn sumac. I know there is a lot of poluttion, but no more than is already in our commercially grown food.

    • ata1515 profile image

      ata1515 5 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      I am in a city, one you might know a little about, Buffalo, NY. I didn't think one would be able to forage in the city, even with all of our parks.

    • Julie Fletcher profile image

      Julie Fletcher 5 years ago

      Thank you! I need to visit your profile and Hubs so I don't sound dumb by asking - but why are you limited? Did you know that wild edibles even grow in the city? You should check out 'Wild Man Steve Brill', he forages in Central Park, NYC!

    • Julie Fletcher profile image

      Julie Fletcher 5 years ago

      Hi there! I'm not sure, perhaps you just were not confident in your identification? I can't say that it is a bad thing to need to always check against photos, as I said, if not for pictures I'd be poisoned for doing something stupid. Mushrooms are very difficult for identification, except for some species. I think the safest to identify is the morel. I just moved to the country after a decade of urban living, so no growing set up - yet. There is a lot of land to forage here, I plan to forage a lot more. So far I've harvest Eastern Hemlock (the tree), trout lily, strawberry leaves, and dandelion.

    • BigSerious profile image

      Christen Roberts Comer 5 years ago from Harrisburg, PA

      Wild foraging! What a great idea to do with a young kiddo to teach them identification. I have a problem in that, as a younger kid until I was about 25, I couldn't make distinctions. It was only last year (at 34) that I could finally identify Poisin Ivy. I have no idea why this is, but it ran from plants to cars: I simply could not identify them on their own without comparing them to something else. Do you forage food and have your own set up at home for growing? I'm interested in mushroom foraging.

    • ata1515 profile image

      ata1515 5 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      Interesting hub, I wish I could forage, but I'm limited to what I grow myself.