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What is a Corn Lily?

By L. Jablonsky
Updated May 16, 2024
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A corn lily is a perennial plant native to the western region of the United States. Although several different species may be called by this name, it most often refers to the Veratrum californicum. The perennial is part of the the Liliaceae family. It is also poisonous, although it has been used for medicinal purposes.

This plant is known by several alternate names, all derived from its resemblance to other types of plants, including "Western hellebore" and "false hellebore." The Veratrum californicum is usually called a "corn lily" because its erect stalks and leaves resemble a cornstalk. The corn lily is also often mistaken for hellebore or skunk cabbage because of a superficial resemblance.

The corn lily is found throughout the Western part of the United States, mainly in California. It grows under natural conditions in wetland areas, including meadows, creek beds, and marshes. The false hellebore grows from short, dark roots into stalks ranging anywhere from 4 to 8 feet (about 1.2 to 2.4 meters) tall. The stalks are surrounded by heavily veined green leaves. Clusters of star-shaped white flowers with green venation top the plant.

The alkaloids in Veratrum californicum render it poisonous to humans, animals, and some insects. The poison affects the nervous system, possibly resulting in paralysis, and may cause prolonged gestation and deformities in offspring. Some symptoms of corn lily poisoning include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and hallucinations.

Historically, people used the plant for medicinal purposes. Since the poison strikes the nervous system and initially induces paralysis, some people used the plant as an anti-convulsive for people suffering from epilepsy. Native Americans steeped the roots to create a form of birth control and created poison darts by dipping them in the juice.

Today, a powdered form of Veratrum californicum is commercially sold as an insecticide. Researchers are also isolating some of the alkaloids to potentially create different types of medicine. Cyclopamine, a steroidal alkaloid found in Veratrum californicum, has been isolated to dissect and analyze the hedgehog signaling pathway.

Experts recommend handling this plant with care, wearing rubber gloves and a face mask for protection from toxins. Confusing the corn lily with a cornstalk, skunk cabbage, or hellebore may result in poisoning, so caution is vital when identifying and handling plants with a similar appearance. The plant's toxins may cause birth defects, so women should be especially cautious.

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