What Is False Hellebore – Learn About Indian Poke Plants

What Is False Hellebore – Learn About Indian Poke Plants

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

False hellebore plants (Veratrum californicam) are native to North America and have a deeply rooted culture in First Nation’s history. What is false hellebore? The plants have many common names, including:

  • Indian poke plants
  • Corn lily
  • American false hellebore
  • Duck retten
  • Earth gall
  • Devil’s bite
  • Bear corn
  • Tickle weed
  • Devil’s tobacco
  • American hellebore
  • Green hellebore
  • Itch weed
  • Swamp hellebore
  • White hellebore

They are not related to hellebore plants, which are in the Ranunculus family, but are instead in the family Melanthiaceae. False hellebore flowers may be in bloom in your backyard.

What is False Hellebore?

Indian poke plants come in two varieties: Veratrum viride var. viride is native to Eastern North America. The inflorescence may be erect or spreading. Veratrum viride var. eschscholzianum is a Western North America denizen with drooping side branches of inflorescence. The eastern native is generally found in Canada, while the western variety may span a range from Alaska to British Columbia, down into the western states to California. They are wildly growing herbaceous perennials.

You can recognize this plant by its size, which may achieve 6 feet (1.8 m.) or more in stature. The leaves are also striking, having large oval, pleated basal leaves up to 12 inches (30 cm.) long and smaller, sparser stem leaves. The huge leaves may span 3 to 6 inches (7.6 to 15 cm.) in diameter. The foliage makes up the bulk of the plant but it does produce spectacular inflorescences in summer until the fall.

False hellebore flowers are on erect 24-inch-long (61 cm.) stems with clusters of ¾-inch yellow, star-shaped florets. The roots of this plant are poisonous and leaves and flowers are toxic and may cause illness.

Growing False Hellebore Indian Poke

False hellebore plants reproduce primarily through seed. Seeds are borne in tiny three-chambered capsules which crack open to release seed when ripe. Seeds are flat, brown and winged to better catch on wind gusts and spread across the area.

You may harvest these seeds and plant them in prepared beds in a sunny location. These plants prefer boggy soil and are often found near swamps and low ground. Once germination takes place, they need little care except for consistent moisture.

Remove the seed heads in late summer if you don’t wish to have the plant in all areas of the garden. The leaves and stems will die back with the first freeze and re-sprout in early spring.

History of False Hellebore Use

Traditionally, the plant was used in small quantities orally as a medicine for pain. Roots were used dried to topically treat bruises, sprains and fractures. Oddly, once the plant experiences a freeze and dies back, the toxins decrease and animals can eat remaining parts without trouble. Roots were harvested in fall after a freeze when they are less dangerous.

A decoction was part of a treatment for chronic cough and constipation. Chewing small parts of the root helped stomach pain. There are no current modern uses for the plant, although it contains alkaloids that may have the potential to treat high blood pressure and rapid heart rate.

Fibers from the stems were used to make fabric. The ground dried root has effective pesticide properties. First Nations people were also growing green false hellebore to grind the root and use as laundry soap.

Today, however, it is just another of the wild wonders in this great land of ours and should be enjoyed for its beauty and magnificent stature.

Note: It should be noted that this plant is considered toxic to many types of livestock, especially sheep. If you’re raising livestock or live near a pasture, use caution if choosing to include this in the garden.

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The Adonis genus, which comprises of about 30 species belongs to the Ranunculaceae family of flowering plants, the buttercups, which contains over 2,000 species.

Some of the most commonly grown species in the garden include Summer Pheasants eye (Adonis aestivalis) Pheasant's eye also known as Blooddrops (Adonis annua) Spring Pheasant's eye, False Hellebore, Sweet Vernal (Adonis vernalis) Far East Amur Adonis (Adonis amurensis) and Pyrenean Adonis (Adonis pyrenaica).

The plants can range in height from 4 inches (10 cm) to 16 inches (40 cm) and usually have feathery leaves.

The number of petals is widely variable between individual species, from as little as five petals to as many as thirty.


Ashwood hellebores are recognised as 'simply the best' in the world.


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Our award-winning hellebores are regarded as being some of the finest ever produced, attracting gardeners and growers from all over the world. We grow a superb range of hellebore species, inter-species hybrids and cultivars but it is our Helleborus x hybridus Ashwood Garden Hybrids that have won international acclaim, widely acknowledged as ‘simply the best’ strain of Helleborus x hybridus available today.

You can be sure of the purest of colours, many with beautiful markings or dramatic dark nectaries, perfect flower form and shape, clean colours on the backs of the blooms and strong, healthy plants with short sturdy flower stems. All are renowned for retaining their intensity of flower colour over a long period. We have recently launched the Ashwood Evolution Group, an exciting new generation of Ashwood Garden Hybrids developed from our wonderful golden yellows and neons.

We also offer a fine selection of species, interspecies hybrids and cultivars, many of which are excellent garden plants. They all share a subtle natural beauty and charm with many varieties having the added bonus of good architectural foliage. Our intensive breeding programme has resulted in some outstanding introductions among this group. Our hellebore breeder, Kevin Belcher, is extremely proud of his Ashwood Strains of Helleborus sternii and Helleborus niger, as well as his new inter-species crosses Helleborus x belcheri ‘Pink Ice’ and Helleborus x ashwoodensis ‘Briar Rose’. Please be patient if you are interested in these new varieties as there will always be limited availability.

Do try and visit us during January ,February and March when you will find an amazing selection of hellebore plants for sale in our beautiful sales areas. During Winter in Bloom (January and February) there are special exhibits and displays with ideas on how to create a beautiful winter garden, plus a programme of hellebore tours, lectures and a garden open day. Read more

Poisonous Plants: False Hellebore (Veratrum viride)

False hellebore, also known as Indian and American hellebore, is a herbaceous perennial and a member of the Melanthiaceae family that also includes Trillium. It is native to eastern and western North America and grows in wet woods and swamps from Canada to the Carolinas but is also found in Alaska, and the mountains of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. False hellebore is not even distantly related to the other plants more commonly known as hellebores that include Christmas hellebore, Lenten rose, and stinking hellebore. False hellebore is poisonous while true hellebores are not.

Description: False hellebore grows 2-8′ tall from a thick rootstock and has a leafy, hairy stem bearing light green foliage. The leaves are oval, heavily ribbed, and up to 12″ long , and have hairy undersides. The small greenish white to greenish yellow flowers are hairy and borne in dense branching terminal panicles up to 12″ long. They appear in summer and give way to capsules that are straw-colored to dark brown.

Poisonous Properties: All parts of false hellebore are poisonous with the greatest toxicity occurring in the inner rhizome. Alkaloids contained in the plant include germidine, germitrine, veratridine, veratrosine, and veratramine. Although extracts from false hellebore have been medicinally to treat conditions such as hypertensive toxemia during pregnancy and some dire cases of pulmonary edema, misuse of medicinal preparations accounts for most of the instances of poisoning in humans. Symptoms include burning in the mouth and throat, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, sweating, impaired vision, hallucinations, headache, loss of consciousness, paralysis, and sometimes death. The effects of ingesting it are slow to show themselves but symptoms usually disappear within 24 hours.

Where to grow

Veratrum nigrum (Black false hellebore) will reach a height of 1.2m and a spread of 0.6m after 2-5 years.

Suggested uses

Wallside and trellises, Underplanting, Low Maintenance, Cottage/Informal, Beds and borders, Wildlife, Woodland


Grow in deep, fertile, moist but well-drained soil in partial shade. Can be grown in sun if soil does not dry out. Best in a cool woodland garden or against a north-facing wall. Shelter from cold, drying winds.

Soil type

Soil drainage

Soil pH




UK hardiness Note: We are working to update our ratings. Thanks for your patience.

Companion plants

We do not currently have companion plants added for this plant.

Botanical name

Other names

Black false hellebore, Dark-flowered white hellebore, Veratrum ussuriense



V. nigrum - V. nigrum is a clump-forming, rhizomatous, deciduous perennial with pleated, broadly elliptic, mid- to dark green leaves and erect stems bearing large panicles of pungent, star-shaped, maroon or dark reddish-brown flowers in summer.

Native to



Clump-forming, Erect flower stem


Highly toxic to humans, mammals, and insects, including bees.


RHS AGM (Award of Garden Merit)

A skunk cabbage “looks similar”

When I first saw this plant (pictured above) both alongside and within a stream in the woods, I was told it was “skunk cabbage.” I was excited about possibly seeing it in bloom as I had only seen photos of Skunk cabbage blossoms in wildflower field guides. Early the next year I repeatedly visited the site in late winter and early spring in order to find and see those unique flowers for myself. I never found any — among the hundreds of plants at this location. So I began to wonder . . . “is this really skunk cabbage?”

After some Internet searches, I concluded this plant was definitely not Skunk cabbage. The leaves were too different from the images I had found on my searches. The question then became, “well, what is it?” After carefully working my way through various field guide keys, I realized this was Green false hellebore (Veratrum viride).

A year later I came across Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) at a near-by botanical garden. Now I could really see the differences between these two plants!

Let’s study each of these “looks similar” plants, particularly in early spring when they are most noticeable with their vibrant light green leaves. First, we can see the leaf venation is different. (This was my first and most significant clue that my local plant was not skunk cabbage.) The veins of Green false hellebore are parallel.

The veins of Skunk cabbage are pinnate — with a strong center vein.

Even though both plants live in the same type of watery habitat, and both plants have leaves arising in a whorl, there are some distinct differences between the plants. The next series of images shows the plants side-by-side so you can clearly see those differences.

Starting with the emergence of spring foliage . . .

Green false hellebore and skunk cabbage

. . . young plants with what looks like a rosette of leaves . . .

Green false hellebore and skunk cabbage

Green false hellebore and skunk cabbage

Notice the Green false hellebore’s alternate leaf arrangement (and no leaf petioles) as compared to Skunk cabbage’s rosette of stalked leaves.

Green false hellebore and skunk cabbage

Green false helleborte (Veratrum viride) becomes a six foot tall plant — while Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) remains only 12 to 18 inches in height. By mid to late summer, the plants die back.

Green false hellebore and skunk cabbage

Each plant has very different types of flowers — at different times in their growing cycle. The focus here has been on the leaves and overall plant since most of us will come across and wonder about this plant when it is first leafing out in the spring.

To round out our photo comparisons, here is a final image of a group of Skunk cabbage plants — to compare with the group of Green false hellebore plants at the beginning of this post.

Specific Adonis Plants Often Grown in Gardens

Pheasant's eye, Red morocco, Blooddrops (Adonis annua).

This plant is an annual that is usually found in corn fields.

Adonis annua can reach 20 inches (50 cm) in height.

It carries beautiful red/scarlet flowers. As with other Adonis plants, the foliage consists of feathery leaves.

This plant flowers in June and July.

Pyrenean Adonis (Adonis Pyrenaica).

This is a perennial plant native to the mountains between France and Spain.

It reaches between 12 to 18 inches (30 to 45 cm) in height, and carries large flowers of gold/yellow.

Spring Pheasant's eye, False Hellebore, Sweet Vernal (Adonis vernalis).

This is a perennial that is native to the steppes of Europe.

The plant is a medicinal plant that contains a compound (glycoside Adonidin) that is used in the treatment of heart conditions.

As one of the common names suggests this member of the Adonis genus flowers in the spring. It has flowers that are yellow/gold in colour.

I hope that you enjoyed this guide on how to grow Adonis. You may also enjoy the following growing guides:

Watch the video: American hellebore