Every spring the Northern New England Poison Center manages a number of poisonings from foragers picking toxic plants and mushrooms mistaken for safe, healthy food. Most recently, the UVM Medical Center Emergency Department has seen a spike in poisonings from people ingesting a plant called false hellebore that they thought were wild ramps. “Now that people are headed outside, we are seeing more plant-related poisonings,” says Rebecca Bell, MD, a pediatric critical care physician at UVM Medical Center. “Every spring we see an increase in foraging-related poisonings but we are seeing more this year than in the past.”
Most of these patients end up in the hospital for evaluation and treatment. Many need to take heart medications for hours or even days. Dr. Bell’s advice? “In the spring these leaves look really similar, so please wait a few weeks or months before foraging so that these plants are more easily distinguished.”
What is false hellebore?
False hellebore (Veratrum) is a highly poisonous plant that can be mistaken for a prized wild edible, the wild leek, or ramp (Allium tricoccum). False hellebore grows wildly in wet soil throughout Vermont, often in the same areas as ramps, and the two can look especially similar early in the season. False hellebore grows 2-8 feet tall with a thick green stem, large, ribbed leaves and hairy, star-shaped flowers. Ramps, on the other hand, do not have ribbed leaves, and they have an onion-like smell.
What happens if you eat false hellebore?
The effects of eating false hellebore appear between 30 minutes and 4 hours after eating the plant, and often start with severe nausea and vomiting. They then move on to slowed heartbeat and a drop in blood pressure. Other signs and symptoms may include:
- Slowed breathing
- Numbness and tingling
What can you do if someone has eaten false hellebore?
- If someone has eaten false hellebore, do not wait for symptoms to appear. Contact the poison center right away—call 1-800-222-1222, chat online at www.nnepc.org or text poison to 85511.
- In most cases, someone who has eaten false hellebore will need to go to the hospital.
How can you prevent false hellebore poisonings?
- Only pick wild plants to eat if you are sure you know what they are. If you are interested in foraging, consider taking a class through a trusted local organization.
- Know what plants are on your property. If you have false hellebore or other poisonous plants around your home, consider removing them, especially if you have young children or pets.
Remember, we are here for you
Whether it be an illness, injury, or ongoing medical condition that needs attention, please know that our emergency departments and urgent, specialty and primary care clinics across the UVM Health Network are ready to provide care. As always, if you have a life-threatening situation, call 9-1-1.