FALSE HELLEBORE (VERATRUM SPECIES)
The coarse, pleated leaves are typical of this tall perennial. Like all lilies, the leaves have their veins arranged parallel to each other. Flowers are carried in a showy cluster of six-parted flowers. Preferred habitats are moist woods or meadows.
False hellebore, which native peoples of the Pacific Northwest use principally as a local anesthetic, contains unstable alkaloid poisons. Most poisoning cases have resulted from misuse of the plant as a herbal remedy.
Leaves, stems, berries, and roots all contain toxic compounds. The most potent concentration is usually found in swollen underground stems, known variously as bulbs, rhizomes, and corms.
Glycosides in wild hyacinth, star-of-Bethlehem, and lily of the valley. Alkaloids in Indian hellebore, autumn crocus, and tulips. While Indian hellebore, autumn crocus, and lily of the valley have, or have had, medicinal uses, all of these plants can be dangerous or fatal if ingested in large doses.
TYPICAL POISONING SCENARIO
Consumption of leaves, stems, and/or quantities of berries by livestock or children. During the Second World War, starving Dutch cattle—and sometimes starving Hollanders—ate tulip bulbs with sickening and occasionally fatal results.
Indian hellebore and autumn crocus: Reduced blood pressure, cardiac arrest.
Wild hyacinth, star of Bethlehem, and lily of the valley: Increased heart rate and blood pressure, cardiac arrest.
Tulips and daffodils: Dizziness, nausea, abdominal pain, and—rarely—convulsions and death.
FALSE HELLEBORE POISON INFORMATION
Alkaloids are nitrogen-bearing alkaline chemicals that originate in plants. They are derived from amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which especially affect the nervous system. At least 40% of all plant families include plants that contain these compounds.
Many plants have different alkaloids present, each with a specific activity. Some alkaloids are useful medicines; others are harmful, even fatal. Most are bitter tasting. The liver, with the assistance of enzymes, processes the alkaloids that enter the body, rendering some harmless there, while making others more toxic.
One common alkaloid, which many of us seek daily, is caffeine.