Special Note: This post involves 2 highly poisonous wildflowers. They’re cool and interesting and all, but pretty dangerous. Don’t screw around with them.
This past weekend was actually a second Bachelor Weekend, with Awesome Wife and the Trifecta visiting family on the East Coast. (I joined them last night, here in the Boston area.) Saturday was the Tour de PC, and Sunday of course I was trashed. But after some kicking back, eating waffles* and downing some ibuprofen, by late afternoon I felt inspired enough to undertake a “recovery ride.”
*My Bachelor Diet consists of the following four food groups: Waffles, Pasta, Grilled Asparagus, and Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. It’s not really a “Pyramid”; I like to think of it as my “Food Tesseract.”
Tangent: I don’t really believe in “recovery rides.” My “recovery” the day following a big race is primarily lazing around, drinking a couple of beers and maybe calling a friend or two to either brag or commiserate about how I did. No, the real reason was that I’d been out of the backcountry for a full week, and was about to be away again for another week, and I wanted to see what was blooming.
I needed something easy and shady, so drove up Mill Creek, and pedaled up and round Dog Lake, then up the Great Western trail East for a ways. This is a great stretch of singletrack- smooth, rolling and shady- and while popular with bikers, it sees few hikers. After a few miles the trail reaches a little vale with a big meadow and a stream running through it and across the trail. I call this little vale the Valley Of Death.
Tangent: OK, I admit that “Valley Of Death” is way dramatic-over-the-top, like something out of one of the Lord of the Rings movies. But I wanted a zinger title, and “Couple of Toxic Wildflowers in a Meadow in a Gentle Draw” just didn’t quite have the same punch.
The Valley Of Death is one of the prettiest meadows around; from late May until early September, something wonderful is always blooming. When I last visited, 10 days earlier, it was dominated by Mountain Bluebells and Case’s Fitweed. Both are still present, though past peak. Instead the Valley Of Death is now dominated by 2 absolutely spectacular late bloomers, both of which are deadly poisonous.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I’ll cover the toxicology of each in just a moment. But the important thing is to be super-careful with both of these flowers. If you touch or handle any part of either, make sure to thoroughly wash your hands before eating, preparing food, or picking your teeth/nose. Don’t touch them at all if your hands have any open cuts, sores or scratches. Do not obtain water from the stream. And do not, under any circumstances, ingest any portion of either of these 2 plants.
Deadly Poisonous Flower #1
The first is, in my opinion*, the most elegant and fascinating flower in the entire Wasatch: Western Monkshood, Aconitum columbianum. Aconitum is a genus of some 250 species spanning the Northern hemisphere. It’s part of the Buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, and so is related to things like Columbine and Larkspur (which are also both flowers that do real interesting and unusual things with their sepals.) In Europe it’s known as Wolfsbane. It favors mountainous areas with moist, well-drained soils and plenty of open sun. Here in the Western US, A. columbianum is our only species.
*And I look at a LOT of wildflowers in the Wasatch, so my opinion should count for something.
The first amazing thing about this flower is its fascinating and unique anatomy. Each blossom bears a distinctive “hood”, giving the flower its name. The hood is actually one of 5 sepals, with 2 more on the sides, and the final 2 on the bottom.
Pretty much the only thing that pollinates Monkshood are Bumblebees, which wriggle up in between and under the 2 side sepals, crawling over the stamens and stigma- smearing pollen everywhere and all over themselves- and then reach up with their super-long tongues, under the hood and into the nectaries. It’s a totally wild anatomy, whose evolution was apparently driven by Bumblebees, on whom it is dependent for reproduction.
Just as cool as Monkshood’s anatomy is its toxicology. The key ingredient is the compound aconitine (C34H47NO11*), which, although it was used for centuries in traditional European and Asian medicine, can be a deadly poison. Aconitine acts directly on nerves, and used properly it sometimes served as an analgesic and fever-reducer. Unfortunately aconitine has a really, really narrow range of effectiveness, meaning that it’s extremely difficult to modulate the dose such that it produces the desired effect without sickening or killing the patient. In stronger doses it affects the nerves responsible for regulating heart rate and respiration, leading to slowed heart rate and eventually full cardiac arrest. Ingested it is if anything more awful, producing abdominal burning and vomiting after only an hour, followed by eventual heart failure. Victims remain clear-headed and lucid right up until the point of death. Even skin contact with sap from leaves/stems can cause tingling and numbness in the hands/arms and lowered heart rate. In Nepal, Japan and elsewhere, hunters have made arrow poison from the plant.
*A big-ass molecule that does complex, freaky stuff, but which- like so many other organic compounds- is comprised of the same 4 ultra-common elements. Organic Chemistry rocks.
Monkshood, or Wolfsbane, has traditionally been considered a tool or even defense against, werewolves. Supposedly if the flowers casts a yellow shadow on someone’s chin, that someone is a werewolf*.
*I haven’t yet tested this, but I have noticed that OCRick has an excessive amount of body hair. I will attempt to work such a test- casually, of course- into our next Mill Creek ride.
Kindred Spirit #1
Tangent: When I arrived at the Valley Of Death, there was a bike lying by the stream. A little ways off I saw a mtn biker, a woman roughly my age, poking around and taking photos of flowers. Yes, that’s right- she was taking photos of flowers. In a year and a half of this project, this was the first mtn biker I’d seeing doing what I’m always doing. We chatted a bit about the flowers, the beauty of the meadow, and she identified the Corn Lily for me. We rolled off our separate ways, but I left the Valley Of Death feeling reassured, and not quite so unusual and weird. I’m not the only mtn-biking botany geek in Utah!
Deadly Poisonous Flower #2
The second flower is a tall stalk bearing zillions and zillions of little flowers. When you get up close, each flower has 6 petals (multiple of 3) and when you check out the leaves, the newest growth is at the base, not the tip, of the leaves, marking this plant as a monocot. And when you look more closely at the “petals”, you’ll see that 3 are actually sepals, identifying this plant as a lily. In fact it’s Corn Lily, Veratrum californicum, a beautiful plant when in bloom, but absolutely deadly.
Veratrum is a genus of about 40 species found around the Northern hemisphere. Its exact phylogeny is still unsettled, but it appears to be closely-related to Zigadenus, the Death Camases. Veratrum species are more common in Eastern North America, but V. californicum is found in well-watered meadows throughout the Rockies.
Corn Lily is a source of several gnarly alkaloids which can cause all sorts of nasty poisoning, and in fact some Indian tribes used the juices of its crushed roots as arrow poison. But even worse, a couple of these alkaloids can lead to serious birth defects in the offspring of livestock who munch on its foliage.
One such alkaloid is jervine (C27H39NO3*) which causes holoprosencephaly, a condition in which the brain of the developing fetus fails to form into 2 distinct hemispheres. Another alkaloid is cyclopamine (C27H41NO2**) which causes a special form of holoprosencephaly called cyclopia, which results in malformation of the face, nose, mouth, and you guessed it- eyes. It was so named because it was implicated in the birth of a series of 1-eyed lambs in Idaho in the late 1950’s.
*See? Here’s another super-powerful compound made out of the same 4 molecules.
**And another one!
These alkaloids “work” by disrupting a mechanism called the Hedgehog Signaling Pathway, which has nothing at all to do with hedgehogs, but rather is a communication mechanism used to direct the specialized growth of different cells, determining whether that cell becomes part of an eye or nose or tail or whatever.
Pretty freaky and awful, huh? Wait- it gets worse.
Another common name for Corn Lily is False Hellebore. Hellebores (genus = Helleborus) is a group of about 20 species of plants, at least some of which bear a passing resemblance to Corn Lily*. In addition, some hellebores have long been used in folk medicine as treatments for nausea and cramps. And nausea and cramps are of course common problems for… (have you put this together yet?)… pregnant women.
*The resemblance is only superficial. Hellebores are not monocots, but rather belong to the Buttercup family, and so are- ironically- fairly closely related to Monkshood. Aren’t these family trees like a big soap opera?
So here in this beautiful meadow, which- if you are a Salt Lake area mountain biker- you’ve probably passed through dozens of times, stands enough deadly toxin to kill you and probably everyone you know (or at least your Dunbar number) and/or do worse to their unborn children. So stop and admire the Valley of Death, but don’t play Euell Gibbons here.
Kindred Sprit #2
Tangent: As I typed this post the following morning on my flight to Atlanta, my seatmate glanced over a couple of times at the text and diagrams on my laptop and then asked, “What are you working on?” I explained, as I have many times, that I have this rather odd hobby that has nothing at all to do with my work, and expected the familiar, polite smile and nod that says, “OK- weird guy.” Only he didn’t. He was a botanist- an honest-to-goodness live botanist, on his way home to Durham after attending the American Botanical Society meeting up at Snowbird. For the next 2 hours we talked about research and lilies and pines and Mexican oaks and population genetics and polyploidy, and all of the things I love to go on about in this blog that you probably skip over on your way to the next tangent. We showed each other photos of flowers and grasses and pine needles and ground cover, and he shared with me pics and background of his primary subject of study- 2 species of evergreen ground-cover shrub of the genus Pixa… Pixa…something-or-other. (Oh crap I forget- hey Wade, if you read this can you remind me in a comment or email?) After nearly 2 decades of avoiding in-flight chatter with seatmates, I finally had a truly wonderful conversation with a fascinating seatmate.
Nested Tangent: A cool thing about talking to a real botanist is you learn how many Latin names are pronounced. For example Poaceae, the grass family, is not pronounced “poh-uh-SEE-uh”, (as I’d been pronouncing it) but rather “POY-see”, like Boise with a “P”.
The botanist’s story was also inspiring. At age 32, having put his wife through law school, he decided he no longer wanted to be a social worker, but rather wanted to pursue his passions for plants and the outdoors. Today, having obtained his Master’s and about a year away from his PhD, his eventual career path is uncertain, but he’s pursuing his dream. He woke up and changed paths. He’s living my secret fantasy. Way to go, Wade.