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Veratrum californicum

Veratrum californicum

Veratrum californicum

Veratrum californicum

Veratrum californicum variety californicumSynonym: Veratrum tenuipetalum.  
(Corn Lily, False Hellebore)

Melanthiaceae (False Hellebore Family)
formerly Liliaceae (Lily Family)

Montane, subalpine. Meadows, wetlands. Summer.
Navajo Lake Trail, July 11 and June 25, 2005 and below Black Face, October 20, 2010 and July 3, 2013.

Veratrum californicum most often grows in dense colonies in high mountain meadows, but it also occurs scattered in open woods.  If plants receive sufficient summer rains, a small percentage of the plants will flower.  Few, if any plants will flower when moisture is low.  The third photograph of dying plants in the fall shows that many plants will flower when moisture is abundant in such wetlands as those below the tall cliffs of Black Face.

Each of the massive sprays of flowers in the first photograph above belongs to one plant.  In the second photograph, the Navajo Lake Trail cuts through young Veratrum californicum that will soon, if moisture is sufficient, produce some flowering stalks.  (The Trail is heading to Navajo Lake which is tucked in a high valley behind 14,000 foot El Diente, the peak at the top middle of the picture).

     There are often arguments over Veratrum californicum's common name: Some people call it "Skunk Cabbage".  But it is not related to the Skunk Cabbage of the East.  It is even more often called "False Hellebore" because it resembles European Hellebores.  But it is not a Hellebore.  It is commonly called "Corn Lily" because it is hard to look at without thinking "Corn".  But it is not related to Corn, and some botanists do not even classify it as a Lily.  Common names often produce problems.

    Linnaeus originated the scientific genus name "Veratrum" in 1753 and Elias Durand named the species Veratrum californicum in 1855 from a specimen collected by Pratten near Nevada City, California in 1854.  Amos Heller named the species Veratrum tenuipetalum in 1905, but Veratrum californicum is the more widely accepted scientific name today.

     "Veratrum" is Latin for "true black", referring to the black rhizomes (roots) of plants in this genus.  "Tenu" is Latin for "thin" or "slender" and "petalum" is Greek for "a leaf" or "spread out flat" and refers to the spreading leaves of Veratrum tenuipetalum  --  which, however, are certainly neither "thin" nor "slender".  Scientific names can also be confusing.

    For a fascinating introduction to the potential medical use of Veratrum, see Wikipedia, especially footnote 1.

     Click to see how much fun a Veratrum parade can be!  
Veratrum californicum
Veratrum californicum variety californicumSynonym: Veratrum tenuipetalum.  
(Corn Lily, False Hellebore)

Melanthiaceae (False Hellebore Family)
formerly Liliaceae (Lily Family)

Montane, subalpine. Meadows, wetlands. Summer.
Lizard Head Trail, June 17, 2005.

Veratrum californicum is very distinctive and very common.  Early in the spring it appears in mountain meadows as a green, tightly packed cluster of leaves pushing through soils moist from recent snows.  Depending on the moisture it receives, it then erupts into a three-to-six foot tall corn-like plant and may then shoot up a long flower stem topped by white and green flowers.  In dry seasons it is common to find no plants in flower; in moist seasons few to many plants flower in a few of the many clones that fill meadows. 

Veratrum californicum spreads from underground roots; it is not dependent on seeds for reproduction.

Veratrum californicum
Veratrum californicum variety californicumSynonym: Veratrum tenuipetalum.  
(Corn Lily, False Hellebore)

Melanthiaceae (False Hellebore Family)
formerly Liliaceae (Lily Family)

Montane, subalpine. Meadows, wetlands. Summer.
Echo Basin Loop Road, June 7, 2004.

Corn Lily's leaves are deeply pleated and veined, with pointed tips; leaves clasp the main stem with a nearly vertical posture.

Veratrum californicum
Veratrum californicum variety californicumSynonym: Veratrum tenuipetalum.  
(Corn Lily, False Hellebore)

Melanthiaceae (False Hellebore Family)
formerly Liliaceae (Lily Family)

Montane, subalpine. Meadows, wetlands. Summer.
Horse Creek Trail, June 21, 2005.

Veratrum californicum
Veratrum californicum variety californicumSynonym: Veratrum tenuipetalum.  
(Corn Lily, False Hellebore)

Melanthiaceae (False Hellebore Family)
formerly Liliaceae (Lily Family)

Montane, subalpine. Meadows, wetlands. Summer.
Navajo Lake Trail, July 11, 2005.

Corn Lily's flower head of hundreds of flowers appears raggedy with flowers overlapping in various stages of bloom and wither.

Veratrum californicum

Veratrum californicum

Veratrum californicum

Veratrum californicum

Veratrum californicum variety californicumSynonym: Veratrum tenuipetalum.  
(Corn Lily, False Hellebore)

Melanthiaceae (False Hellebore Family)
formerly Liliaceae (Lily Family)

Montane, subalpine. Meadows, wetlands. Summer.
Navajo Lake Trail, July 15, 2010 and July 11, 2005; Cross Mountain Trail, June 30, 2010; Lizard Head Trail, September 15, 2010.

From afar, flowers appear a raggedy jumble, but up-close they are lovely shades of green and white in attractive masses.

In good years, clones of a dozen or so plants produce a few plants that flower.  If moisture continues to be plentiful the flowers produce seeds that swell considerably.

Veratrum californicum
Veratrum californicum variety californicumSynonym: Veratrum tenuipetalum.  
(Corn Lily, False Hellebore)

Melanthiaceae (False Hellebore Family)
formerly Liliaceae (Lily Family)

Montane, subalpine. Meadows, wetlands. Summer.
Lizard Head Trail, August 31, 2004.

In mid and late summer, sunny browns and yellows predominate before Corn Lily falls to the ground and turns to dull, decaying tans.

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Eradicated
Questionable presence

Range map for Veratrum californicum

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