Nature Note – Early Spring Wetland Greens

Left: The leaves and flowers of American false hellebore. Photo by SB Johnny. Right: The leaves and flowers of skunk cabbage. Photo by Alpsdake. Both images: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; cropped.

Chartreuse—a luminous yellow-green color—currently punctuates wetlands and wetland edges throughout our region in the form of American false hellebore (Veratrum viride). The herbaceous perennial belongs to the lily family and is typically found in wet places such as stream corridors, moist meadows, and swamps. Mature plants can grow as tall as six feet.

False hellebore is often confused with an unrelated plant, skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). The leaves of both plants are similar in color and shape, and emerge in wet areas in early spring. There are several ways to distinguish the two species from one another. Upon close inspection, you can observe that false hellebore leaves are lanceolate to oval in shape, have strong parallel veins and “pleats,” and clasp a false erect stem. In contrast, skunk cabbage leaves are broadly oval, have branched veins (similar to the leaves of the vegetable crop cabbage), and only grow at the base of the plant. Skunk cabbage flowers emerge before the leaves and false hellebore flowers emerge after the leaves.

The flowers are also dissimilar and bloom at different times. The yellow-green flowers of false hellebore are arranged on a long branching stem, roughly the shape of a pyramid, called a panicle. In our region, they’ll flower in late spring or mid-summer. In contrast, the flowers of skunk cabbage are grouped on a thick spadix (an unbranched, fleshy spike) and enclosed by a hooded, purple-mottled—think red meat—spathe (a modified leaf). The peak flowering time for skunk cabbage in our area is in April.

The two plants share another characteristic: toxicity. All parts of American false hellebore are highly poisonous—they contain steroidal alkaloids—particularly early in the growing season. Perhaps that’s why one of its common names is “devil’s-bite.” Ingesting the plant can trigger a range of reactions, from burning sensations in the mouth and throat to vomiting and convulsions. It can also cause breathing issues and paralysis. Goats, sheep, and cattle readily eat the plant, so farmers with livestock consider it a nuisance plant. Raw skunk cabbage leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals, which also cause a burning sensation in the mouth and throat if consumed.

As long as the plants are not on your plate, they both offer early seasonal delight, contrasting against the muted browns of winter’s transition to spring. As skunk cabbage flowers senesce, we can look forward to the American false hellebore blooms to come.

Important Health & Conservation Note
Wild leek (Allium tricoccum), also known as ramps, is a wild food in our region that can be mistaken for American false hellebore. If you are responsibly*foraging for these spicy delights, please take care to be one hundred percent confident in your plant identification. According to a recent Seven Days article, the Northern New England Poison Center reports that poisonings from American false hellebore have doubled in Vermont over the past year and increased in New York as well. You can view photos of wild leeks here, though these pictures should not be used as the sole resource for plant identification. As is true with foraging mushrooms, if you are not fully confident in your species identification, please don’t harvest or consume the wild edible.

*According to Go Botany: Native Plant Trust, “Wild leek is one of the most over-harvested wild foods, leading to declines in some areas as several studies have shown.” Research published in 2004 by Janet H. Rock, Brian Beckage, and Louis J. Gross in the journal Biological Conservation concluded that a 10% harvest once every ten years is the maximum sustainable harvest. Native Plant Trust suggests that, “if bulbs are to be harvested, leave behind the base of the bulb (with the attached roots), collect only after the seeds have ripened, and use them to reseed the soil disturbed during harvesting.”