When it comes to Veratrum latifolium I am reminded of the folk song which the trio Peter, Paul, & Mary sang with a very catchy chorus that went “Lemon tree, very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat” Veratrum latifolium’s flowers are beautiful, but the plant, as all Veratrums, is poisonous.
Of all the plants which appear in my little corner of Southern Appalachia, none intrigue me more than the two varieties of Veratrums which are one of the first plants to poke through dried leaves in late March or early April. Why do they intrigue me? Because they go through various transformations Spring and Summer and then don’t show off their interesting flowers until late in the summer season. I will blog about Veratrum parviflorum another time, and let Veratrum latifolium take center stage today.
I enjoy standing above the plants and looking down at them because they look like stars.
There is very little greenery around the property and the area in March and even early April, so as one rambles among the dried leaves the plants that are up call one’s attention, and nothing is more curious than standing right on top of an emerging Veraturm latifolum. It makes a sharp contrast to the other plants such as violets, bloodroot, and Dutchman’s britches which look like, well, what plants are supposed to look like.
About 10 years ago I had the idea of bringing plants which were on the property into dedicated flower beds so that I could show them off to visitors. Some plants simply refused to be transplanted – more on that topic later, but many of the plant species transplanted well and many other plants appeared in the beds on their own, their seeds transported into a welcoming environment by the wind or deposited by our many “critter” visitors. I have not tried to transplant Veratrum parviflorum, but I did dig up and transplanted a latifolium and it has rewarded me with a beautiful stalk of white flowers almost every year since. Like a lot of us, it has “good years” and “bad years” sometimes deciding to sit out the season.
In the fall I dug up one of the plants on the property and not knowing much about botany at all – and in the days of pre-Internet articles on plants I had no idea what to expect, I was surprised it looked just like a green onion you buy at the grocery store. (hard to believe, but it is true, we had to rely on books for all of our information, and when it came to photographs, “forget it!”)
The plant’s common name is Slender bunchflower. It isn’t the sort of plant which appears illustrated in print so for a few years I thought it was Death Camas, which was the closest the plant came to in pictures. The Latin epithet latifolium, which is a bit confusing given the fact that we associate the word “slender” with it in English as the word in latin translates as “broadleaf, or wideleaf”. Lati means broad or wide in Latin and folium means leaf.
So, on the topic of Veratrum latifolium’s leaves… Once the plant grows a bit out of its interesting star configuration in the spring, it turns darker and the leaves are a little over 1 inch wide, but then they become slender (!) as the season progresses and the center stalk which holds the inflorescence with its beautiful raceme of flowers shoots up.
When I was trying to identify this plant I followed its development fairly closely and tried to document it. There are many of these plants on the property and because they are so peculiar in early spring they are very easy to mark with a flag and to follow.
On the left is a photograph of the leaves in Spring and then in late summer when the leaves dry out a bit, get a little yellow and are rather slender, just as the common name implies.
The veratrum plant growing in the one of the flower beds in August.
By September seed capsules begin to appear along with flowers
By October the flowers have almost fallen away yielding to its interesting seed pods
According to William Cullina (Growing and Propagating Wildflowers in the United States and Canada – page 264) not writing specifically about Veratrum latifolium, but simply about Veratrum, the seeds germinate after one cold season but the plants take 6-7 years to flower.