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Don't eat that! ID'ing false hellebore with state toxicologist Sarah Vose

A photo of lush green leaves on the toxic false Hellebore.
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Knowing what to look for before you forage for any wild edible is essential. False hellebore looks lovely and delicious with its lush green leaves but this wild plant is also toxic to people, pets and livestock.

Spring is here, and that means wild leeks or ramps can be found in some Vermont forests.

The garlic-y, green ephemeral edibles are prized for their taste. But for new and seasoned foragers, they can also prove tricky to identify.

False hellebore's Latin name is Veratrum viride. The wild plant, native to Vermont and most of the United States, is also known as Indian poke, corn-lily, Indian hellebore or green false hellebore.

To get more information on how to avoid wild hellebore if you're foraging now for wild ramps or wild leeks, VPR's Mary Engisch spoke to State Toxicologist Sarah Vose, with the Vermont Department of Health. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Sarah, many Vermonters head out to the woods now to forage for wild edibles, in some cases not knowing that certain things are toxic and can cause big problems, especially with false hellebore. Can you explain to us what it looks like and what it is?

Sarah Vose: Sure. False hellebore is a leafy plant that comes up very early in the spring, and it's only a few inches tall. The false hellebore plant is easily confused with another early spring plant: ramps or wild leeks.

Last weekend, I mistook a patch of false hellebore for wild ramps, and I only realized the difference when I picked one of the leaves. A distinguishing characteristic of ramps is the strong onion or garlic smell and taste. You can smell it when the leaves are broken. False hellebore do not have this distinguishing smell or taste.

The smell and taste alone of a plant does not guarantee that a plant that you've picked is a ramp, so make sure that you do your research before you go out, and be sure that you know how to identify ramps.

People can search for a foraging class near them, or refer to images of false hellebore on the Poison Control website.

And you mentioned you were out hiking and came across it. Are there other places that we might see false hellebore growing?

False hellebore can be found in backyards and in forests really anywhere where you see some wet soil. They probably aren't very common on roadsides, but they can be found almost everywhere else in Vermont.

And false hellebore is toxic to humans, to pets, to livestock. When you say "toxic," what sorts of properties does the wild plant have?

False hellebore contain many different chemicals called steroidal alkaloids on all parts of the plant. And these steroidal alkaloids can change the way that our cells regulate sodium concentrations inside the cells.

Sodium concentrations inside cells is very tightly regulated, and when that goes awry, our bodies can become sick very quickly.

More from VPR: When Foraging For Wild Edibles, Always Identify Before You Try

And what occurs if people ingest false hellebore?

People often experience severe nausea and vomiting first, then they may notice a slowed heartbeat and a drop in blood pressure. Other symptoms can include slowed breathing, weakness, dizziness, numbness, tingling and excess sweating and drooling.

Pets and livestock can experience the same symptoms that people do, including vomiting and changes in heart health.

Sarah, how common is poisoning from false hellebore in Vermont?

Last year, four poisonings were reported to Poison Control. That's a drop from 2020, when there were 25 cases reported to Poison Control. So we hope that outreach like this helps spread the word about this danger of false hellebore and reduces the number of people who are poisoned.

This week, we've had our first false hellebore poisoning in Vermont.

Do you attribute the higher number in 2020 to the pandemic, meaning people looking for new adventures outside so that they could go and harvest some wild edibles?

Yeah, it could have been that people were at home more often. That was right when COVID started for many people. So people may have been, like you said, outdoors and looking for new hobbies to get into.

OK, what should people know about first steps if ingestion of false hellebore occurs?

If you've eaten false hellebore, don't wait for symptoms to appear. Contact the Poison Center right away. You can call 1-800-222-1222. You can with chat them online or you can text, "POISON" to 85511.

In most cases, people who have eaten false hellebore will need to go to the hospital. The effects on the heart need to be managed by medical professionals, and the poison center will advise the hospital staff on how to treat people.

Again, this is not a poisoning that should be managed at home. If you're sick enough to have vomiting, tingling, or any other symptoms, you really do need to go to the hospital, you most likely have these other heart symptoms that need medical attention.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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