Herbs & Plants

Veratrum californicum

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Botanical Name: Veratrum californicum
Family: Melanthiaceae
Genus: Veratrum
Species: V. californicum
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Liliales

Common Names: California corn lily, white or California false hellebore

Habitat : Veratrum californicum is native to mountain meadows at 3500 to 11,000 ft elevation in southwestern North America, the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, and as far north as Washington State and as far south as Durango. It grows in swamps, creek bottoms, moist woodlands and meadows, from lowland to the sub-alpine zone.

Veratrum californicum is a perennial plant. It grows 1 to 2 meters tall, with an erect, unbranched, heavily leafy stem resembling a cornstalk. It prefers quite moist soil, and can cover large areas in dense stands near streams or in wet meadows. It is in flower from Aug to September. Many inch-wide flowers cluster along the often-branched top of the stout stem; they have 6 white tepals, a green center, 6 stamens, and a 3-branched pistil (see image below). The buds are tight green spheres. The heavily veined, bright green leaves can be more than a foot long. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by Bees, flies, lepidoptera....CLICK & SEE

Veratrum californicum displays mast seeding; populations bloom and seed little in most years, but in occasional years bloom and seed heavily in synchrony.

The plant has become a local Fourth of July parade tradition in Crested Butte, Colorado, where it locally referred to as “skunk cabbage.”

*Veratrum californicum var. californicum – from Washington to Durango..…..CLICK & SEE 

*Veratrum californicum var. caudatum (A.Heller) C.L.Hitchc. – Idaho, Washington, Oregon, N California….CLICK & SEE 

Requires a deep fertile moisture retentive humus-rich soil. Succeeds in full sun if the soil does not dry out but prefers a position in semi-shade. Dislikes dry soils. Grows best in a cool woodland garden or a north facing border. Members of this genus are rarely if ever troubled by browsing deer. Plants are long-lived and can be left in the same position for years without attention.

Unless stored in damp sand at around 4°c the seed has a short viability. Where possible it is best to sow the seed in a lightly shaded position in the greenhouse as soon as it is ripe. Stored seed needs to be stratified but can be very slow to germinate. Germination can be erratic even for seed sown when it was fresh, it usually takes place within 3 – 12 months at 15°c but can be much longer. The plant produces just one seedleaf in its first year, this forms an over-wintering bulb. It takes up to 10 years for the plant to reach maturity. Sow the seed thinly so there is no need to thin or transplant them, and grow the seedlings on undisturbed in the pot for their first two years of growth. Apply a liquid feed at intervals through the growing season to ensure the plants do not become nutrient deficient. At the end of the second year plant out the dormant plants into individual pots and grow them on in light shade in the greenhouse for a further year or two before planting them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer. Division in March/April or in October. Establish the plants in pots in a shaded frame before planting them out. Division is best carried out in the autumn because the plants come into growth very early in the spring. Root cuttings, 6mm long with a bud, rooted in a sandy soil in a cold frame.

Medicinal Uses:

Although a very poisonous plant, California false hellebore was often employed medicinally by a number of native North American Indian tribes who used it mainly as an external application to treat wounds etc. It also had quite a reputation as a contraceptive. It is little, if at all, used in modern herbalism. Any use of this plant, especially internal use, should be carried out with great care and preferably only under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. The root is analgesic, disinfectant and febrifuge. A decoction has been used in the treatment of venereal disease. The roots have been grated then chewed and the juice swallowed as a treatment for colds. A poultice of the mashed raw root has been used as a treatment for rheumatism, boils, sores, cuts, swellings and burns. The dried and ground up root has been used as a dressing on bruises and sores. A poultice of the chewed root has been applied to rattlesnake bites to draw out the poison. The powdered root has been rubbed on the face to allay the pain of toothache. A decoction of the root has been taken orally by both men and women as a contraceptive. A dose of one teaspoon of this decoction three times a day for three weeks is said to ensure permanent sterility in women.

Use as prime material for medical drugs:
Cyclopamine extracted from V. californicum is being used in anti-cancer experimental drugs. One derivative of it, compound name IPI-926, is currently undergoing clinical trials for the treatment of various types of cancer, including hard-to-treat hematologic malignancies, chondrosarcoma, and pancreatic cancer. IPI-926 is the only compound in development/testing that is not fully synthetic
Other Uses:…....Disinfectant; Insecticide…….The dried and powdered root is used as an insecticide and a parasiticide. It is also effective against caterpillars and mammals so great caution is advised

Known Hazards:... All parts of the plant are highly poisonous. The flowers are poisonous to insects, including bees.
Teratogenic effects:
It is a source of jervine and cyclopamine, teratogens which can cause prolonged gestation associated with birth defects such as holoprosencephaly and cyclopia in animals such as sheep, horses, and other mammals that graze upon it. These substances inhibit the hedgehog signaling pathway.

Disclaimer : The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplement, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.

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