Veratrum californicum (California corn lily, white or California false hellebore) is a poisonous plant native to mountain meadows at 3500 to 11,000ft elevation in southwestern North America, the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, and as far north as Washington State. It grows 1 to 2 meters tall, with an erect, unbranched, heavily leafy stem resembling a cornstalk. It prefers quite moist soil, and can cover large areas in dense stands near streams or in wet meadows. Many inch-wide flowers cluster along the often-branched top of the stout stem; they have 6 white tepals, a green center, 6 stamens, and a 3-branched pistil (see image below). The buds are tight green spheres. The heavily veined, bright green leaves can be more than a foot long.
It is a source of jervine and cyclopamine, teratogens which can cause prolonged gestation associated with birth defects such as holoprosencephaly and cyclopia in animals such as sheep, horses, and other mammals that graze upon it. These substances inhibit the hedgehog signaling pathway.
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Use as prime material for medical drugs
Cyclopamine extracted from V. californicum is being used in anti-cancer experimental drugs. One derivative of it, compound name IPI-926, is currently undergoing clinical trials for the treatment of various types of cancer, including hard-to-treat hematologic malignancies, chondrosarcoma, and pancreatic cancer. IPI-926 is the only compound in development/testing that is not fully synthetic.
In popular culture
Scientists from the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory have adopted a tradition of publicizing their work by marching in the Crested Butte, Colorado Fourth of July parade wearing leaf skirts made of Veratrum californicum (skunk cabbage), and playing "trombones, kazoos, pots and pans".
- Blackwell, Laird R. (1998). Wildflowers of the Sierra Nevada and the Central Valley. Lone Pine Publishing. ISBN 1-55105-226-1.
- Niehaus, Theodore F.; Ripper, Charles L.; Savage, Virginia (1984). A Field Guide to Southwestern and Texas Wildflowers. Houghton Mifflin Company. pp. 10–11. ISBN 0-395-36640-2.
- Inouye, David W.; Wielgolaski, Frans E. (2003). "High Altitude Climates". In Schwarz, Mark D. (editor). Phenology: An Integrative Environmental Science. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 195–214. ISBN 1-4020-1580-1. Retrieved 2011-12-07.
- Van Kampen & Ellis. "Prolonged Gestation in Ewes Ingesting Veratrum californicum: Morphological Changes and Steroid Biosynthesis in the Endocrine Organs of Cyclopic Lambs".
- Chen, J; Taipale, J; Cooper, M. (2002). "Inhibition of Hedgehog Signaling by direct binding of Cyclopamine to Smoothened". Genes Dev. 16 (21): 2743–2748. doi:10.1101/gad.1025302. PMC 187469. PMID 12414725.
- "Pipeline: IPI-926". Infinity Pharmaceuticals.
- Tremblay, MR; Lescarbeau, A; Grogan, MJ; Tan, E; Lin, G; Austad, BC; Yu, LC; Behnke, ML et al. (2009). "Discovery of a potent and orally active hedgehog pathway antagonist (IPI-926)". Journal of Medical Chemistry 52 (14): 4400–18. doi:10.1021/jm900305z. PMID 19522463.
- Harte, Julia (2014-07-02). "Fourth of July Parade Brings Scientists Dressed in Foliage—Some With Nothing Else". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2014-07-04.
- Jepson Manual Treatment: var. californicum
- USDA Plants Profile
- Flora of North America
- Washington Burke Museum
- Photo gallery
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