Western False Hellebore

April 11, 2011 Print Friendly and PDF
Western False Hellebore (Veratrum californicum), courtesy or Dr. Roger Banner, USU Extension

Scientific Name: Veratrum californicum
Distribution: Western United States
Type of Poison: Alkaloids
Signs of Poisoning:

  • Excessive salivation with frothing
  • General body weakness; animal may be unable to stand
  • Irregular gait
  • Vomiting
  • Fast, irregular heartbeat
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Coma
  • Convulsions


About Western False Hellebore

Growth Characteristics: A native, perennial herb, 1 to 8 feet tall. Before the end of its growth, it will turn sunny brown and yellow.

Flowers: Flowers are in a large, terminal panicle. Petals are marked at the base with a green V-shape. Flowers are typically white. Three sepals and three petals are alike. The flowers are often raggedy in appearance due to the overlapping in various stages of bloom and wither. Flowers are one-half inch in size.

Fruits/Seeds: A three-chambered capsule that contains numerous brown, winged, flat seeds.

Leaves: Robust, broad, large, alternate, and three-ranked, growing up to 12 inches long and between 3 and 6 inches wide. The leaves sheath the stem, somewhat folded, strongly parallel veined and hairless. The leaves give the plant a corn-like appearance.

Stems: Erect, stout, unbranched, very leafy stems.

Roots: Thick and fibrous. Black rhizomes.

Where and When It Grows

Western false hellebore grows on moist, open meadows and hillsides at elevations of 5,000 to 11,000 feet. It emerges as soon as snow melts in the spring. Flowers appear in July and August, and the plant produces seeds in September.

How It Affects Livestock

Western false hellebore causes severe poisoning in sheep and goats, which readily eat leaves and plant tops. It also affects cattle, but cattle will only eat it when other forage is scarce. Western false hellebore is poisonous from the time it starts to grow until after it is killed by freezing, but toxicity decreases as plants mature. The roots are five to 10 times more poisonous than the leaves or stems.

Signs of western false hellebore poisoning may occur in two to three hours after an animal eats the plants. Sheep may show slight or marked signs of poisoning after eating 6 to 12 ounces of green stems or leaves.

If pregnant ewes eat western false hellebore on the 14th day after breeding, the young may have congenital deformities of the head. These offspring, commonly called monkey-faced lambs, may have a protruding lower jaw, underdeveloped upper jaw, proboscis-like nose, and a variety of deformities of the eyes as well as related deformities.

Ewes carrying severely deformed fetuses may fail to lamb at the end of the normal gestation period. The fetus thus continues to grow to an abnormal size and eventually may kill the ewe unless the lamb is delivered by surgery.

How to Reduce Losses

Losses of newborn animals from deformities can be avoided by keeping sheep, goats, and cattle away from western false hellebore during early gestation.

If animals are acutely affected, protect them from the sun and allow them to remain quiet.

Research results show the western false hellebore may be controlled by herbicides. Consult your local Cooperative Extension agent for more information about specific herbicides. Always follow all precautions when handling herbicides.


L.F. James, R.F. Keeler, A.E. Johnson, M.C. Williams, E.H. Cronin, and J.D. Olsen. Plants Poisonous to Livestock in the Western States. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Information Bulletin 415, 90 pp. 1980.

Pratt, Mindy S. False hellebore. Range Plants of Utah. 2008. Utah State University Extension Service. 17 November 2009. http://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/htm/false-hellebore.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.