North Coast Chapter - CNPS

Cyclops and the corn-lily

by Gordon Leppig

Corn-lily or False Hellebore (Veratrum spp.), are magnificent lilies found in coastal freshwater marshes and mountain meadows throughout the Pacific Northwest. These conspicuous and usually gregarious wetland wildflowers, with their coarse leafy stems 1 to 2 meters tall, thick rhizomes, and huge panicles, make a bold botanical statement. The genus consists of about 25 northern temperate species. Only four species occur in California. In the Golden State V. californicum is widespread while V. viride occurs in California only in the Klamath region and V. fimbriatum and V. insolitum are rare neo-endemics to the Northcoast.

Despite their beauty corn-lilies are highly toxic to both humans and livestock. Flour inadvertently ground from the rhizomes of corn-lilies poisoned some of the members of the Lewis & Clark expedition. They probably mistook it for the edible camas (Camassia quamash), the bulbs were an important source of food for northwestern Indians. Though the plants are generally unpalatably acrid, they are one of the first plants to appear in early spring and therefore can be hazardous to livestock if other forage is unavailable. One toxic alkaloid found in corn-lilies is a potent teratogen — an agent that produces congenital abnormalities in developing embryos. For instance, when a pregnant ewe ingests Veratrum album or V. viride her lamb can be born with a deformed cranium which includes a strange horn-like projection on its nose and cyclopia — a surreal deformity characterized by the development of a single median eye. It is believed that lambs born with cyclopia were the basis for the mythical monster Polyphemus, the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey. My travels in South America took me to a small natural history museum in Ambato Equator which housed a most remarkable collection of preserved deformed mammals. Among these grotesque monstrosities were a number of newborn cyclopean farm animals. These creatures were so frightfully bizarre it is easy for me to see how the Cyclops could have entered the pantheon of mythical monsters.

Corn-lilies are not the only poisonous lilies. The autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) from the Iberian Peninsula is toxic lily that turns out to be a very valuable poisonous plant. The alkaloid drug colchicine is extracted from this plant. Colchicine is known as a mitotic poison because it prevents the polymerization of microtubules, the structures that orchestrate the separation of the chromosomes during cell division. Thus, colchicine can produce diploid gametes and is an important tool used by plant breeders to produce polyploid cultivars. Plant breeders also use it to render sterile hybrids fertile by doubling the chromosome number so that chromosomes have a homologous set to pair with during meiosis.

Some other common native and cultivated toxic lilies, to name only a few, include: Narcissus spp. (daffodils are another important plant in Greek & Roman mythology), Zigadenus (death camas), Agapanthus (lily-of-the-Nile), Agave, and Hyacinthus (hyacinth). In large quantities, even the common onion (Allium cepa) is toxic. Is no one safe? In onions the toxic part of the plant is — you guessed it— the bulb, because of its concentration of N-propyl-disulfide. Onion over-indigence, according to Poisonous Plants of California, results in bloody urine, anemia, and jaundice.

Veratrum, like many poisonous plants, also has some medicinal value. Cherokees used the green hellebore (V. viride) as a pain reliever, while according to the book Medical Botany, the Tompson tribe of British Columbia drank a small decoction of V. californicum for blood disorders. The European V. album was formally used as an emetic and for its potent antihypertensive effects. V. album was officially listed in the US Pharmacopoeia for many years but is no longer used because the margin of safety is too small, the side effects severe, and better drugs have since been synthesized. V. album is currently used homeopathically for diarrhea with vomiting.

Corn lilies are yet another botanical paradox of the California landscape and perhaps serve as a metaphor for many elements in our lives. They supply exquisite beauty yet can cause grotesque ugliness. They can inflict severe pain and death as well as relieve pain and save lives. Maybe nothing in nature is intrinsically good or bad. A species’ value is, perhaps, completely dependent upon how it is used and to what measure.

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California Native Plant Society - North Coast Chapter
P.O. Box 1067 Arcata, CA 95518-1067
Last updated November 1997