The Corn Lily: Toxic Beauty of the North American West

August 26, 2021

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Photographer: Ray Boren

Summary Author: Ray Boren

When summer wildflowers begin to color the meadows of Utah’s Uinta Mountains, you can be assured that, with a camera handy, I will be drawn toward patches of corn lily plants (false hellebore). A perennial herb that grows best in moist environments, corn lily — formally Veratrum californicum, but also known as wild corn, cow cabbage, or skunk cabbage — is both fascinating and a toxic danger to grazing livestock. Corn lilies are found throughout much of mountainous western North America, including the Uintas, an east-west trending subrange of the Rocky Mountains paralleling the Utah-Wyoming border. 

The plants emerge initially from damp soil like tightly clustered blades of grass, which develop large, pleated leaves so eye-catching that shutterbugs like me cannot resist peering into their green, sinuous depths. The first photograph, taken along the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway on May 10, 2020, is a mesmerizing example. As summer progresses, the corn lily develops tall stalks that rise amid the sturdy leaves and give us its popular name, as shown in the second photo taken beside the Uintas’ picturesque Mirror Lake on Aug. 3, 2021. This rapid growth is followed by scores of small creamy flowers blossoming at their tops that give the plants an overall appearance similar to cultivated maize or corn, as shown in the third image taken on July 20, 2021.

Though beautiful, every part of the corn lily, from its roots to its leaves, stems and flowers, is poisonous, especially to foraging sheep, goats and cattle. If consumed by livestock during early pregnancy, corn lily plants cause deformities in their offspring. The inherent poisons are steroidal alkaloids, which can affect animals within hours of consumption, causing various observable symptoms, including frothing, convulsions and coma. If caught early, poisoned animals can be successfully treated with epinephrine. Humans probably should be somewhat wary, too, although the USDA reports that the plant is being studied for medicinal properties, and notes that Native Americans used it for external afflictions and in cleansing rites.

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