Sunday, August 19, 2012

The paradoxical plants of a thousand names...

The names? Corn lily, False hellebore, False Poke,American False Hellebore, American White Hellebore, Bear Corn, Big Hellebore, Corn Lily, Devils Bite, Duck Retten, Indian Hellebore, Itch-weed, Itchweed, Poor Annie, Blue Hellebore, and Tickleweed....and that's just out of Wikipedia! I'm trying to remember what my dad called it (it was everywhere in the Flattops where we went fishing)...I think there is a rule somewhere that you cannot be considered a wildlife photographer in the West unless you take pictures of the pleated foliage emerging in early summer. I guess I'm in the club.

Above is a shot of Veratrum tenuipetalum, the current name for the universal false hellebore of the Rocky Mountains. Some years vast fields of foliage dominate whole valleys with nary a one in bloom. Then, boom! One year there are flowers everywhere. Such a year was last year (2011): this picture was taken on Kebler Pass between Aspen and Crested Butte.

Here we have a closer shot--they are majestic. I assumed growing at high, cold valleys they would be a challenge to grow in the garden, but in 2009 we visited the Royal Horticultural Society's magnificent garden at Wisley and saw this grand specimen: Veratrum californicum, I believe:

And a few days later we saw this honker blooming at Kew: Veratrum nigrum occurs across a wide swath of Eurasia (we saw it in early June in the Altai of Kazakhstan!) in an amazing range of habitats from moist grasslands to dry woods. It is not nearly as massive as many of its white flowered kin (generally four or so feet tall), with gorgeous pleated leaves. It is amazing this is so rare in cultivation flowers do have allure, as Paul Bonine reveals in his delightful book.

A rather lurid (and out of focus) closeup of the same...please hurry on!

Everything so far is really just preamble to my showing off my dinky and adorable tiny black hellebore: Veratrum formosanum is endemic to Taiwan, with the same dark blossoms as its more common cousin, only it usually grows well under 2' tall. The foliage is much narrower, and daintier altogether. You can see it fits in nicely into a rock garden. Although it thrives in a border as well...

Here is a picture of the flower stalk--you might describe the flowers as maroon, chocolate or just plain dark. They are fascinating to look into, and a complete contrast to everything else in the August garden. I have several of these in my rock garden, and this time of year they stand out in every sense of the word, despite their somber coloration. This deserves far greater popularity (if only there were some nurseries offering it).

I obtained mine from Beaver Creek Nursery in British Columbia, and Roger still lists it: don't all order it at once! And don't expect your grassy little tuft to make quite the impact of a vast meadow full of corn lilies in the Alps, or the Cascades. But once it settles in, you can expect its dark little towers to brighten your late summer in a most paradoxical fashion!


  1. Itchweed, Tickleweed -- does it cause an allergic reaction?

  2. I have my Veratrum nigrum for more than 6 years; keep hoping that it will spread into a nice clump but it remains a single plant. Any suggestion? I read somewhere that its flowers are smelly. I ventured to stick my nose really close to the flowers but couldn't smell anything. Bad nose?

  3. Panayoti,

    Would your father have called it skunk cabbage by chance.... that is what I grew up calling it. Mark and I would make tunnels in big patchs in North Routt each summer growing up. Our parents hated how we smelled when we returned home at the end of each day.

  4. Exactly, Mike: Skunk cabbage it was. Which annoyed me since I knew there was an Eastern Aroid that first had that common name. But I do think it's the commonest name in Colorado! Thank you! (I never noticed the smell...but as you see one of the other commenters was wondering--probably from the damaged foliage rather than the blossoms).

  5. I vote for Duck Retten! Or, should it be Duckling Retten for the smaller species? Fascinating post! I do love the larger ones in our swamp out back, they remind me of my childhood - days of Skunk Cabbage and polywogs.

  6. Panayoti, Are you familiar with Veratrum woodii? Have you tried to grow that species? I have been to a preserve in Illinois that has Veratrum woodii. However, I did not see it. I was there to see Trillium nivale blooming. I was probably too early.


  7. Never heard of Veratrum woodii: if it grows in Illinois, it should be gardenworthy (all veratrums are awesome as far as I can tell): gotta check it out! Thanks for the package--arrived in perfect condition. Will plant today!


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