This photo of Toxicoscordion venenosum (syn. Zigadenus venenosus) was taken at the Mt. Zhuhalem Ecological Reserve on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Toxicoscordion venenosum is native to many parts of western North America (distribution map).This highly toxic species is commonly known as meadow death-camas, and it is a member of the Melanthiaceae (not to be confused with the Melianthaceae). Melanthiaceae consists of perennial flowering herbs found in North America. Until recently, a few genera of Melanthiaceae, including Toxicoscordion, were classified as members of Liliaceae. However recent genetic studies have provided evidence that caused the genera: Amianthium, Anticlea, Schoenocaulon, Stenanthium, Toxicoscordion, Veratrum, and Zigadenus to be re-classified under the Melanthiaceae (see: Zomlefer, W. et al. 2001. Generic circumscriptions and relationships in the tribe Melanthieae (Liliales, Melanthiaceae), with emphasis on Zigadenus: Evidence from ITS and TRNL-F sequence data. Am. J. Bot. 88(9): 1657-1669).
This specimen is seen growing through the young foliage of Quercus garryana in a Garry oak woodland ecosystem. This species commonly grows in association with large numbers of Camassia quamash (common camas), another bulbous plant that was formerly a major food source for many First Nations.
This overlap of habitat for these species has unfortunately resulted in severe, often lethal, poisoning. Toxicoscordion venenosum is considered to be among the most poisonous plants in North America. Its primary toxin, zygacine, is similar to the toxin that is found in green-skinned potatoes. All parts of the plant are considered poisonous and any contact should be avoided–even the nectar and pollen have been shown to poison honeybees and other pollinators! Livestock poisonings often occur in the springtime as these shoots usually appear before other forage is available (it is recorded as causing more death in sheep in its range than any other plant species), whereas human poisonings often occur when people mistake the bulbs for wild onions or other edible bulbs when these plants are no longer in flower. First Nations often weeded Toxicoscordion venenosum out of beds of Camassia quamash in order to reduce risk when harvesting the edible common camas.
Reported uses for meadow death-camas by First Nations include making a poultice of mashed bulbs to produce poison-tipped arrows for hunting or making a similar poultice for external use on bruises, boils, sprains and rheumatism.