Veratrum woodii J.W. Robbins ex Alph. Wood

False Hellebore


CC = 8
CW = 5
MOC = 41

© DETenaglia

Family - Liliaceae

Habit - Perennial forb, with small bulbs and short, stout rhizomes. No allium odor.

Veratrum_woodii_basals.jpg Basal rosette

This is the most commonly encountered form of the plant.

© SRTurner

Stem - Aerial stems erect or nearly so, to 1.8 m, unbranched below the inflorescence, pubescent with minute, curly hairs.

Veratrum_woodii_stem.jpg Stem.

© DETenaglia

Leaves - Predominantly basal, those on the aerial stems alternate, linear, greatly reduced, and bractlike. Basal leaves 30-50 cm long, elliptic to broadly oblanceolate, flat or somewhat corrugated, with conspicuous parallel venation, glabrous.

Veratrum_woodii_leaf.jpg Leaf.

© DETenaglia

Inflorescences - Panicles of numerous flowers at the tips of the aerial stems, the lower branches with functionally staminate flowers, the remainder with mostly functionally pistillate or perfect flowers. Flowers with stalks 2-6 mm long, subtended by small bracts, none replaced by bulblets.

Veratrum_woodii_inflorescence.jpg Inflorescence.

© SRTurner

Veratrum_woodii_inflorescence2.jpg Inflorescence branch.

© SRTurner

Veratrum_woodii_bracts.jpg Inflorescence axis and bracts.

© SRTurner

Flowers - Perianth 6-9 mm long, the sepals and petals free, oblanceolate, lacking a stalklike base and glands, but sometimes pubescent with minute, curly hairs on the upper (inner) surface when young, maroon to purplish brown, turning dark purplish green after flowering. Stamens 6, fused to the base of the perianth. Styles 3, each with a small stigma. Ovary superior, with 3 locules, each with 4-10 ovules.

Veratrum_woodii_flower1.jpg Flower lateral view.

© SRTurner

Veratrum_woodii_flower2.jpg Newly opened flower.

© SRTurner


© DETenaglia

Fruits - Deeply 3-lobed capsules, 18-25 mm long, ovoid, the lobes beaked with the persistent styles. Seeds winged.

Veratrum_woodii_fruits.jpg Fruits.

© SRTurner

Flowering - July - September.

Habitat - Mesic forests, often on north- or east-facing lower slopes.

Origin - Native to the U.S.

Lookalikes - Vegetative rosettes are somewhat similar to those of Frasera.

Other info. - This interesting plant is reasonably common in the eastern half of Missouri. Although its native range extends into several other states to our south and east, it is considered uncommon in every state but Missouri. With a little practice it is easy to distinguish the vegetative rosettes, which is the most common condition in which the plant is encountered. When flowering it is unmistakable, with large inflorescences of numerous deep reddish-brown flowers. Since the flowers are not brightly colored and do not stand out visually from the deep shade in which the plant typically grows, it is often missed. This species is an indicator of rich, undisturbed forest slopes and will rarely if ever be found in disturbed areas.

Like most of its close relatives, this plant contains alkaloids and is highly toxic. The steroidal alkaloid veratridine activates sodium ion channels and can cause rapid cardiac failure and death. Alkaloids related to jervine and cyclopamine cause a grotesque array of birth defects, including cyclopia. This usually-fatal syndrome, involving malformation or misplacement of the eyes during fetal development, is well known in sheep but can also occur in humans. All parts of the plant are poisonous, with the root and rhizomes being the most so. Interestingly, the toxic components are metabolized and greatly reduced during winter dormancy, and Native Americans harvested the roots for medicinal purposes during the dormant periods. Even so, they were aware of the potential for severe birth defects, and plant material was used only in minute quantities. Today, ingestion of any part of this plant for any reason would be unwise in the extreme.

This species is also known as Melanthium woodii, and is placed by some authors in its own family, Melanthiaceae. Flowering is sporadic and unpredictable, and possibly promoted by fire.

Photographs taken near Pultite Spring, Shannon County, MO., 7-23-04 (DETenaglia); also at Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin County, MO, 07-22-2011, and Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park, Reynolds County, MO, 07-29-2013 and 08-20-2013 (SRTurner).