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False Hellebore – A Skunk Cabbage Look-alike

5-15-19 false hellebore_U1A0086There are two unrelated plants whose very similar leaves are emerging at this time of year in many wetlands. One is Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), the other False Hellebore (Veratrum viride), also known as Indian Poke. There are foliage differences between these two plants. False Hellebore leaves emerge before its flowers whereas Skunk Cabbage flowers before its leave emerge. In addition, False Hellebore’s leaves clasp the plant’s stem and are elongated and oval, while Skunk Cabbage’s leaves do not clasp the stem and are rounded.

The flowers of these two plants are distinctly different as well. Skunk Cabbage’s yellow, globular flowers are near the ground and have already gone by. In June, False Hellebore produces flowers that are green, star-shaped and borne in large clusters on a tall stalk.

It is not advisable to consume the (raw) leaves of either of these plants. Skunk Cabbage leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals which cause a severe burning sensation in the mouth and the leaves of False Hellebore contain alkaloids which are highly toxic.

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18 responses

  1. Bill On The Hill

    I have these plants scattered around my property Mary, however I will take a closer look to actually verify this now. So the jist of what you are saying is, don’t sprinkle either of these plants on your salad! Lol…
    I did a 3 hr. hike (2) days back now, all the way back to the old Maplewood Rd. Currently wild Trillium is in full blossom up here in the highlands as I encountered it all the way back…
    It is a profoundly beautiful perennial that I wish would stick around longer than it does.
    I also encountered bear sign as well as moose, deer & coyote & a quick glimpse of a rose breasted grosbeak!
    Bill… :~)

    May 15, 2019 at 8:35 am

  2. Luane T Clark

    And did you notice the lovely red trillium in front of the false hellebore?

    May 15, 2019 at 10:05 am

  3. Sarah Zuccarelli

    I have been a voice crying in the wilderness for 40 years about this plant! Thank you for the clear and easily understood explanation of the reality! This is NOT skunk cabbage!

    In all this time I have had a lot of experience with our native black bears. All of it good. There is one aspect of this plant that I think you might want to know. When the black bears come out of hibernation in the early spring they are looking for a source of green vegetation to eat….lots of it. The emergence of false hellebore coincides with the black bears awakening and searching for green food. Their digestive systems have been “off” all during hibernation time and now they need to gear up again. When the false hellebore is available they eat it voraciously. It is then responsible for the elimination of their anal plug. Now they can eat normally again and go about their life as bears in the woods….or your dumpster!
    I have found such a plug only twice in my years wandering around in Carrol county NH.

    I am an admirer of your work and posts.
    Thanks!

    🙂 The Bird Lady of Sandwich
    SWZ

    May 15, 2019 at 10:24 am

    • Maine naturalist

      This is a great value-added comment. Thanks for providing this additional detail to the original post!

      May 15, 2019 at 11:46 am

    • Fascinating! I have searched and searched for a bear plug and never found one. You are amazing to have found two! I was given one by bear biologist Ben Kilham to use when giving programs, however. I had no idea about the false hellebore! Thank you so much for commenting.

      May 15, 2019 at 3:42 pm

  4. Alice Pratt

    So interesting…what is that little flower, peeking out from under the leaves?

    May 15, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    • Red Trillium, aka Stinking Benjamin!

      May 15, 2019 at 12:45 pm

      • Alice Pratt

        Thank you!

        May 15, 2019 at 6:12 pm

  5. Bob

    A friend and I were hiking in NY state many years ago and she collected the leaves of False Hellibore thinking they were Skunk Cabbage which she thought was edible. I brought mine home and put some down for my pet rabbit who refused to eat them. This alarmed me and I tried to call her but she was in the hospital with severe abdominal pain and hallucinations after eating hers.

    May 15, 2019 at 3:07 pm

    • How horrible. I know it is lethal to sheep. I’ve never known of a person who has ingested it. Thank you for commenting!

      May 15, 2019 at 3:40 pm

    • Alice Pratt

      Smart Bunny!

      May 15, 2019 at 6:10 pm

  6. Dale Wisler

    Hi Mary,

    What a coincidence! My wife and I are vacationing in western North Carolina. We saw this plant while hiking and have been trying to figure out what its name is. We asked other hikers and nobody knew. Our photo below matches yours, but yours has that beautiful red trillium.

    Thanks, Dale

    >

    May 15, 2019 at 4:31 pm

  7. I think Euell Gibbons wrote skunk cabbage could be made edible by drying the leaves. They can then be eaten like potato chips.

    May 18, 2019 at 9:04 am

  8. Surprised no photo of th “real” skunk cabbage, maybe I can add a couple?

    May 18, 2019 at 11:44 am

    • Guess I can not post photos here? So I will post them at my own page after sharing this post on False Hellebore…. thanks!

      May 18, 2019 at 11:53 am

  9. Thanks for this timely post. We have been seeing this alot and wondering about it’s relation to the “real” Skunk Cabbage, which we found recently. I will share this to my page and post my photos there.

    May 18, 2019 at 12:33 pm

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