By Nick Italiano
This article was originally published in the Woods Monkey Newsletter on April 27th, 2023
Wild Ramps Vs False Hellebore
Every spring I head to social media for an annual public service announcement regarding the differences between Wild Ramps and False Hellebore. I do this because every year, without fail, I hear a story or come across an article about someone being hospitalized due to ingestion of False Hellebore and it is typically because people thought they were Wild Ramps.
What are Wild Ramps
Wild ramps (Allium tricoccum), also known as ramps or wild leeks, are a type of edible wild onion native to North America. They are highly sought after for their pungent flavor and are used in various culinary applications. Ramps are a choice edible that many foragers seek out and harvest every year; they are so popular that they are also used in professional culinary applications such as in restaurants. This has led to a major decline in ramp populations due to unchecked and uncontrolled over-harvesting.
What is False Hellebore
False hellebore (Veratrum spp.), is a toxic plant that is not edible and can be found in various parts of the world, including North America. This plant, while beautiful is quite dangerous and will make humans and other animals who eat it very sick and can prove fatal, though fatal hellebore poisoning is more common in children and animals. Ingesting false hellebore can cause severe poisoning, including symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory distress, and even death. All Parts of the false hellebore are toxic, though the roots are known to be 5 times as toxic as other parts and they are most toxic when young.
Telling Them Apart
The easiest way to tell the difference between false hellebore is through appearance and habitat. Let us take a look at the key differences in these areas.
Appearance: Wild ramps have broad, smooth, green leaves with a strong onion-like odor. They typically have a reddish stem and small white flowers that bloom in spring. False hellebore, on the other hand, has large, broad, ribbed leaves that resemble those of a corn plant. False hellebore also produces tall spikes with greenish-yellow flowers, which have an unpleasant scent.
Habitat: Wild ramps are typically found in rich, moist, deciduous forests of North America, often growing in clusters or patches. They prefer shaded areas with well-drained soil. False hellebore, on the other hand, tends to grow in wet meadows, marshes, or other damp areas and is typically found in mountainous regions or higher elevations. It is very common to see false hellebore growing near rivers and streams amongst skunk cabbage.
Why are they confused with one another?
From the above information and by looking at these pictures it is pretty clear that these plants though, have some similarities they are remarkably different plants. You may ask yourself, why are there so many poisonings? The obvious answer is people’s lack of foraging experience and inability to confidently identify plants. The second reason is in the early spring young false hellebore plants do look closer to a wild ramp than they do as they continue to grow.
As with all wild plants, you should never eat anything that you can not identify with 100% confidence. Foraging is a great activity that requires a lot of study and practice, there are many great books, videos, and online courses out there that can help, but nothing replaces in-person education with an experienced forager, botanist, or herbalist.
One thought on “Wild Ramps Vs. False Hellebore PSA”
Nice article on the importance of being able to distinguish between Wild Ramps and False Hellebore! It’s a helpful reminder to always be cautious when foraging and to educate oneself on the identification of plants.
Thank you again