Behind the Scenes: The USDA Poisonous Plant Research Laboratory

Poisonous plant research laboratory A couple of years ago I took a research trip to Logan, Utah to visit the USDA's Poisonous Plant Research Laboratory. From the photographs on their website, I was expecting a sort of horticultural X-Files experience: something very high-tech, state-of-the-art, but also mysterious, subversive, and possibly dangerous.

And in fact, that's exactly what I got. Guys in white lab coats, glass beakers, machines that go beep, and startling medical experiments. Although the laboratory’s primary objective is to study poisonous plants that pose a threat to herds of cattle and goats so that they can help ranchers, over the years they have seen some unbelievable projects come out of their research into poisons.

The guy who was showing me around asked, a little carefully, if I had any objections to conducting medical experiments on animals. How do you answer a question like that? I shrugged and smiled and said that I was sure that they were doing valuable research. And it turns out I was right: the researchers had discovered that when pregnant goats graze on particular wild plants (tree tobacco, Nicotiana glauca, and a few others) during a specific point in their pregnancy, the goat kids are born with cleft palate. They were able to help ranchers figure out how to keep pregnant goats away from the plant during that particular stage of pregnancy, but more importantly, they realized that now they had a way to actually cause cleft palate to happen during a pregnancy so that research could be done on possible treatments.

At first they would impregnate the goats, feed them a powdered version of the poisonous plant during that critical window of their pregnancy, and put the goats on a plane to the East Coast so that surgeons could operate on them and attempt to correct the cleft palate. It didn't take long for them to figure out that it was easier to fly surgeons to Utah then it was to fly pregnant goats anywhere, so they set up an operating room where surgeons could perfect their technique.

Lab goat

Now they know how to operate on cleft palate in the womb so that the goat kid is born perfectly healthy and with no scars from the surgery. Fetuses, as it turns out, are able to do something called 'scarless healing' in the womb, so they’re born perfectly healthy after this treatment.

But cases of cleft palate aren’t necessarily caught in the womb, so they also developed an appliance that could be surgically installed in the roof of the mouth of goat kids born with cleft palate, so that rather than do multiple surgeries, it's a simple matter of tightening this little appliance at regular intervals to encourage the cleft palate to heal.

So far, the work has all been done in goats, but you can see the enormous potential for children.

There’s one more. Another wild plant, skunk cabbage, causes sheep to be born with grotesque facial deformities, including a single 'cyclops' eye in the middle of the forehead. One of the researchers asked me if I’d like to see a cyclops lamb. I said yes, of course, and without warning he reached into a cabinet and pulled out a jar that contained (I almost can’t write this, it’s so weird) a severed lamb’s head floating in formaldehyde. Sure enough, the lamb had just one single eye in the middle of its forehead, and that eye was open and looking at me. I haven’t slept since.

But! Here’s the good news. They learned that a plant toxin called cyclopamine causes the deformity by blocking a signal from the sonic hedgehog gene (yes, it’s named after the Sega video game character), thereby interrupting normal development in an embryo. The real breakthrough, however, was the realization that a number of cancers use that same sonic hedgehog signaling pathway. Prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and some brain tumors can be accelerated by weird signaling from this gene pathway. Using a poisonous plant extract from skunk cabbage to block that signal has the potential to be an effective treatment for these cancers.

None of this made it into my new book, so you’re getting the exclusive story right here. But a surprising number of poisonous plants have a fascinating backstory: the death camas bulb, which historians believe sickened members of the Lewis & Clark expedition; the poison hemlock that killed Socrates; the hellebore that was used by the Greeks as an ancient form of chemical warfare.

And I have to confess that I had a glorious time researching (and, in some cases, living with) these villainous plants. I rounded up the most murderous, offensive, illicit, and horrifying members of the plant kingdom, and had a fantastic time working with a young artist from Seattle named Briony Morrow-Cribbs, who created original copperplate etchings to illustrate the book. It just so happens that the name Briony is also the name of a poisonous plant, so I think our collaboration was meant to be.

We’re having a book launch party for Wicked Plants at Eureka Books on Saturday, May 2 from 6-9 as part of Arts Alive. I’ll have copies of the book for sale, fresh from the printer, and we’ll be exhibiting and selling Briony’s original art from the book. We’ve also made blank notecards with art from the book: there’s a set of six murderous plants called “Botanical Outlaws” and a set of six illicit and intoxicating plants called “Horticultural Hallucinations.”

Oh, and I’ll probably sneak a few actual wicked plants into the store, so expect some deadly show-and-tell. Bring your friends—and your enemies. I’ll have something for each of them.

And if you can't make it to the party, you can order a signed or inscribed copy from our bookstore here.