Thursday, May 5, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: False hellebore – the giant toxin of WNY

Every May, Western New York hikers are caught off guard by a rather gigantic flowering plant that is unlike any other to be found this time of year. With its large leaves and impressive height reaching up to 5 feet, it is always a conversation starter.

The plant is commonly called false hellebore, but it also goes by any number of names such as Indian poke, veratrum, and devil’s bite.

The false hellebore can be found in damp areas with rich soils, such as meadows, stream beds, and woodland springs. In our region, it is common in the valleys of Allegany County (especially around the Genesee River). Regionally, its numbers decrease significantly the closer you get to Lake Ontario and it is an uncommon sight in Niagara County.

It starts to sprout from the ground in late-April and grows quickly, hitting 3 feet in height by the second week of May. It starts to blossom weeks later, each branch producing dozens of small, green, rather unattractive flowers.

Hellebore probably gets its name because this plant truly can unleash Hell on any livestock or people that consume it. It is chocked full of steroidal alkaloids (especially in the roots) which can kill painfully and slowly by causing shortness of breath, convulsions, coma, and death from respiratory failure.

Deadly poisoning of humans is rare. For starters, who’s going to eat the plant? Secondly, most people will puke it up before poisoning sets in.

It does, though, commonly poison farm animals.

The USDA routinely issues notices to ranchers about hellebore with the biggest threat, apparently, being to sheep. A poisoned sheep can be treated with epinephrine, but if a pregnant ewe eats it, even in small quantities which wouldn’t kill her, it can lead to serious health problems for her young and herself depending on when it occurs in the gestation period. Early in it, it can lead to “monkey-faced lambs," which have a protruding lower jaw, underdeveloped upper jaw, proboscis-like nose, and other deformities. If it’s later in the gestation period, the baby sheep can grow at incredible rates before it is birthed and it will kill the ewe unless delivered by c-section.

Native Americans had uses for this deadly plant in small amounts. They used it medicinally or as a means to show “who is the boss.” As for the latter, if there was ever a problem with succession planning in certain tribes, groups of men would consume false hellebore and the last one to vomit was the leader because he was the real man out of the bunch. As for the medical purposes, they used it to treat constipation and upset stomach – it was likely useful for both as it could quickly evacuate both ends.

If you see one of these beautiful plants while exploring the Niagara Frontier this spring, take the time to admire it and reflect on its histories and dangers. If you are a farmer, though, do what you can to remove it (roots and all) from your grazing areas -- it’s an interesting plant for sure, but it’s a deadly one.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 05 May 2016 All WNY News

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