As in other parts of the United States and the world, some plants are poisonous. In Vermont, there are two common poisonous plants that cause particular health concerns for Vermonters:
False hellebore, a plant mistaken for ramps or wild leeks
Wild parsnip, also called "poison" parsnip
False hellebore (Veratrum viride) is a leafy plant native to Vermont that comes up very early in the spring. False hellebore can be found almost anywhere in Vermont, like backyards, forests, roadsides, or anywhere there is wet soil. It is also known by other common names such as Indian poke, Indian hellebore, American white hellebore, or bunchflowers. Some people may call false hellebore skunk cabbage.
When it is only a few inches tall, the false hellebore plant is easily confused with ramps or wild leeks, which people harvest to eat. False hellebore is toxic when you eat it. It is not toxic if you touch it. False hellebore is also toxic to pets and livestock, which experience similar symptoms as humans.
The Health Department advises people foraging for ramps to know how to correctly identify them.
What You Need to Know About False Hellebore
What happens if I eat false hellebore?
False hellebore contains many different chemicals called steroidal alkaloids in all parts of the plant. Steroidal alkaloids change the way that cells regulate sodium concentrations inside cells. Sodium concentration inside the cells is very tightly regulated, and when that goes awry our bodies can become sick very quickly.
Eating false hellebore can cause dangerous changes in your heart and you should seek immediate medical care. If you eat false hellebore, you may notice symptoms within 30 minutes to 4 hours after eating it.
Typically, you will have severe nausea and vomiting first. Then you may notice a slowed heartbeat and a drop in blood pressure. Other symptoms can include:
Numbness and tingling
Sweating and drooling
What do I do if I eat false hellebore?
If you’ve eaten false hellebore, do not wait for symptoms to appear. Contact the Northern New England Poison Center right away by calling 1-800-222-1222. You can also chat online or text “poison” to 85511.
In most cases, people who have eaten false hellebore will need to go to the hospital. The effects on the heart need to be managed by medical professionals, and the poison center will advise the hospital staff on how best to treat people.
How can I learn to safely identify false hellebore?
Ramps typically smell like onion or garlic when the leaves are broken. False hellebore does not have this smell. However, the smell alone does not guarantee that a plant you’ve picked is a ramp. Make sure to do your research before you go out, and be sure that you know how to identify ramps. Consider taking a foraging class from a trusted organization.
Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa L.) is an invasive species that is very common in many parts of Vermont. The plants grow wild along roadsides and other unmaintained areas. They produce yellow flowers that look like Queen Anne’s Lace. Most people refer to wild parsnip as "poison parsnip."
Although this is the same plant as the common garden parsnip we eat in soups and stews, the flower heads are the second-year growth from the carrot-like roots. It is a close relative of carrots, parsley, angelica, and giant hogweed, all of which can cause similar skin reactions in sensitive individuals.
The Health Department advises people to stay away from direct skin and eye contact with wild parsnip sap.
What You Need to Know About Wild Parsnip
What happens if I come in contact with wild parsnip?
Wild parsnip produces a sap, or plant juice, that can cause burns to the skin in the presence of sunlight. In some cases, the burns are like second-degree sunburns that can cause painful rashes and raised blisters.
What do I do if I get sap on my skin?
Wash your skin thoroughly with soap and water as soon as possible.
Protect your exposed skin from sunlight for at least 48 hours.
If you experience a skin reaction, call your health care provider.
What do I do if I need to work with wild parsnip?
Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs.
Wash clothes that come in contact with the sap.
Work with the plant on cloudy days.
Always wash your skin immediately after coming in contact with the sap.