Book Review—Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

“A tree sheds poison daggers; a glistening red seed stops the heart; a shrub causes intolerable pain; a vine intoxicates; a leaf triggers a war.  Within the plant kingdom lurk unfathomable evils.”  And so begins this tidy little book about our dangerous green world.  I never realized there were quite so many wicked and wild plants.  I thought most of the plants around me were tame.  Mild lettuce, soft rose petals, fresh green grass.  Then I picked up this book at the library and suddenly my world turned upside down.  My botanical dreams of sitting under grandmother willow changed into ideas of a great battle.  Me against them.  They will do anything to survive:  burn, cut, poison, sicken, alter consciousness.  Do plants have more weapons at their disposal? Who is the higher species here?  They certainly have many strategies to survive.  An example is the section on grasses, or the Lawn of Death.  There are grasses with sharp blades (Southern Cut Grass), grasses responsible for severe hay fever (Kentucky Bluegrass, Timothy Grass), grasses with enough cyanide to kill (Johnson Grass) and Invasive grasses (Pampas) that just won’t go away.

There are plants commonly sold in the nursery trade that are not very nice.  That beautiful blue Monkshood, or Aconitum should be called the grim reaper: “Swallowing the plant or it’s roots can bring on severe vomiting and then death by asphyxiation.  Even casual skin contact can cause numbness, tingling, and cardiac symptoms.”  Keep that one out of my garden!  Datura, or Jimson Weed, is another scary plant.  It produces a nice blue or white trumpet shaped flower, but all parts are poisonous, especially the seeds.  It can cause hallucinations, seizures, coma and death.  Also included in the common garden plants but dangerous are azalea, rhododendron, daphne, hydrangea, foxglove and hellebore.

I enjoyed reading about how many of these plants have changed the course of history.  Jimson Weed was used by the early American colonists to poison the British Soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia in 1677.  Death Camas may have played a role in the terrible illness suffered by the Lewis and Clarke expedition in 1805.

I would highly recommend this book to all plant-lovers.  It’s full of interesting tales, dangerous poisons and positively wicked plants.  You’ll want to wear gloves in the garden from now on.

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