Veratrum californicum — Proud Giants of the Lily Family
by Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes
Arthur R. Kruckeberg, author of Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest, called the Pacific Northwest native Veratrum species the "proud giants of the lily family". I agree! Originally, I thought Kruckeberg was referring to the plant’s 5-6 foot height, or the ovate, heavily ribbed leaves are 3-4” in diameter and 5-6” in length. Now, I think he was probably referring to the huge flower stalk that grows up to ten feet tall. What a sight to see!
I have always been attracted to these beautiful leaves. I love the pleated forms that catch rays of light from different angles. I knew I had to have this plant the first time I saw landscape photographer, Christopher Burkett’s print, “Swirling Veratrum”. When I learned it was a Pacific Northwest native, I was even more intrigued.
Flowers? Veratrums have flowers? I had never seen the flowers, but it made sense that they would. Veratrums have stalks covered with hundreds of tiny, green or white flowers. Do the inflorescences look like corn tassels? Not to me; however, the stalks, along with its alternately arranged leaves, do resemble a corn stalk, earning the plant one of its common names—Corn Lily. The flowers are quite lovely; I especially love the green stripes radiating from the center of the bloom.
Veratrums, also known as False Hellebores, can live a long time, storing enough energy to not only produce a huge, underground rhizome but eventually a large flower stalk as well. These plants enjoy full sun and a moist soil during the growing season. Once the plant is in dormancy, it doesn’t mind dry conditions.
A Word of Caution
This plant and all of its parts are extremely poisonous. According to Pojar and MacKinnon’s, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, ingesting even small amounts cause loss of consciousness followed by death. Native peoples used minute amounts of this plant as topical treatments for sprains, bruises and rashes along with a host of other medicinal uses such kidney and bladder troubles and acute fever.