A Cautionary Tale

Wicked PlantsWicked Plants : the weed that killed Lincoln's mother & other botanical atrocities , by Amy Stewart (Algonquin Books, 2009) is one small book for many people. Those who would pick it up could include historians of daily life, mystery writers in search of a poison to use for the perfect murder, experimental gardeners, and students of book design. It is the winner of the 2010 American Horticultural Society Book Award.

Its premise is that in almost any natural setting, there are villains lurking. Stewart writes in a mock macabre, even humorous, tone, but the facts are serious because almost 69,000 people annually are killed by poisonous plants. She chides parents who will take care to cover electrical outlets and think nothing of allowing a noxious weed to grow by their front door.

To introduce a human element, the author integrates scientific data with anecdotes about the people whose lives were changed by encounters with evil doers. For example, legend has it that Abraham Lincoln's mother died at the age of 34 during an epidemic of "milk sickness", which was contracted by people who drank the milk from cows fed on poisonous weeds.

We may owe Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.'s visionary landscape creations to the fact that, as a teenager, he inadvertently rubbed poison sumac in his eyes. Because he couldn't use his eyes for a year, he stayed out of school and walked in the woods. The experience gave him a love of nature and a new way of looking at it.

All poisonings were not accidental, however. The historical record cites instances of armies using plants against their enemies. Indigenous tribes of South America and Africa rubbed the sap of the tropical vine curare, which causes paralysis, onto their arrowheads, and hearts stopped beating.

The chapter headings offer criminal types for every taste. They try to frighten with Dangerous and Painful, amuse with Intoxicating and Embarrassing, and warn with Dangerous and Destructive. The material is informative, but one criticism of the book has to be its lack of an index. The author does, however, give a helpful bibliography which acts as a comprehensive reference to poisonous plants.

One of the best features of Wicked Plants is its physical design. The reader may wish that the illustrations were in color, but the evocative "poison' green cover, with is entangled vines was a perfect choice. The compact format suggests a personal handbook for carrying on a walk in the woods or in a garden. There is even travel information to guide the brave to the best poison gardens in the world. Bon voyage, and we hope we'll see you again!