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What is this Trinity Alps wildflower?

The Question: On a recent mid-July trip to the Trinity Alps in Northern California we saw many of these 2′-4′ tall plants, most just starting to show emerging flower heads. I thought they were so common that ID would be a cinch, but no such luck. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Submitted by: Marianne, California, USA

The Short Answer: According to several helpful people at www.gardenweb.com’s
Name That Flower forum, this is probably corn lily (Veratrum californicum), also known as false hellebore. “True” hellebores are Eurasian plants in the genus Helleborus. What connects the two is that plants in both Veratrum and Helloborus are toxic, and are often eaten by livestock with disastrous results.

Veratrum californicum is found throughout the western United States, and I was able to find specific references to it in the Trinity Alps, so this seems like a pretty likely identification. To verify that it is the californicum species of Veratrum, a responder on Gardenweb.com suggests: “If the original questioner has a picture of an open blossom, there should be a green mark in the shape of a ‘y’ at the base of each petal.”

Thanks to carol23, mytime, and bboy on Gardenweb.com for their help with identification.

More Information: Veratrum californicum is famous in the scientific world for the specific poisonous effect it has on sheep. All parts of the plant are poisonous, and according to the United States Department of Agriculture (http://www.ars.usda.gov/Services/docs.htm?docid=9992), symptoms include excessive salivation with frothing; irregular gait; vomiting; fast, irregular heartbeat; slow, shallow breathing, coma and convulsions. What triggered the interest of developmental scientists, however, is that lambs born to ewes that eat the plant often have major developmental abnormalities, including misshapen heads and a single eye. This disorder is called “cyclopia” after the one-eyed Cyclops of Greek mythology. Cyclopamine, the specific compound in corn lily that causes the abnormalities, does so by interfering with the action of the “sonic hedgehog” gene, which is crucial in embryonic development (see below for an explanation of the sonic hedgehog name). Studying the effect of cyclopamine on embryonic development helped lead to a much better understanding of how genes direct development. Also, the sonic hedgehog gene normally shuts off after fetal development, and the out of control cell growth of cancer can result when it is turned back on incorrectly. Because cyclopamine can disrupt the sonic hedgehog gene, it is sometimes used as a chemotherapy drug.

So while you definitely don’t want to snack on corn lily the next time you are hiking in the Trinity Alps, you can look on it with a different view, knowing its toxicity has led to increases in our knowledge about embryonic development and cancer.

Why Sonic Hedgehog: Newly discovered genes are generally numbered these days, but in the early days of gene discovery, they were often given descriptive names. “Hedgehog” describes an abnormality where the embryo is covered with small projections that make it look something like the spiny animal. When the mutated gene that causes this abnormality was named, the sonic part was apparently added as a joke to reflect the video game Sonic the Hedgehog, which was popular at about the time the gene was discovered.

The Trinity Alps: The Trinity Alps Wilderness Area is located in northern California and is known for its beautiful alpine views.

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One Response

  1. Marianne Says:

    Thank you soooo much! Sending a question into the electronic ether sometimes feels like stepping off the edge of the universe, and I’m delighted that you responded. AND with such a thorough and very informative answer! I’m just starting with photography and native plant ID, but this has really whetted my appetite for more.

    Thanks again!

    Marianne

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