Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities takes readers on a tour of the serial killers of the botanical kingdom.
Her preface sets the tone, and gives a sense of the interesting and exciting information contained in the book:
“Some of the plants in this book have quite a scandalous history. A weed killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother. A shrub nearly blinded Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s most famous landscape architect. A flowering bulb sickened members of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Poison hemlock killed Socrates, and the most wicked weed of all – tobacco – has claimed ninety million lives.”
For each plant (characterized variously as “deadly,” “illegal,” “intoxicating,” “dangerous,” “destructive,” “offensive,” and “painful,” the author provides an explanation of what the plant does and anecdotes about its use or misuse. Scientific information (biological family, native habitat, and common names appear in sidebars).
I learned so many fun things in this book (well, fun from a distance). For example, I knew kudzu was invasive, but had no idea that a single tap root can weigh up to four hundred pounds! The U.S. production of illegal cannabis has been estimated at $35 billion, while the value of the nation’s corn crop is only $22.6 billion, and even tobacco weighs in at only $1 billion. In 1898 Bayer started marketing heroin. It sold it as a cough syrup for children and adults, but took it off the market after ten years. (For fellow fans of the series “The Knick,” which is set in New York City in 1900, you may remember seeing Bayer’s heroin in the last, cliff-hanging scene of Season One.) The author provides evidence of why the bizarre behavior exhibited by young girls in Salem in 1691 was probably a result of Ergot, a toxic fungus that infects rye and contaminates bread. And she includes the latest research on what makes absinthe, the liquor made from wormwood, so lethal: it’s not, as previously thought, the chemical thujone in the wormwood. Apparently mass spectrometer analysis shows the level of thujone in absinthe is minimal; its deleterious effects are more likely due to the fact that it is a 130-proof spirit…..
Many of the dangerous plants described are common in the American Southwest. I went to the emergency room at least twice when we lived there because of plant “attacks.” But after reading this book, I consider myself lucky!
The author notes that some 68,000 people are poisoned annually by plants. She admonishes us to use reliable sources (not necessarily including those to be found on the internet) to identify poisonous, medicinal, and edible plants. She repeatedly stresses the importance of calling a poison control center if affected.
There are beautiful etchings of all the plants discussed, created by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, and also occasional illustrations by Jonathan Rosen. At the end of the book, there is a brief list of some well-known poison gardens, a bibliography, and the address of the book’s website for more information. There is no index, however, which is a bit shocking, and unfortunately diminishes some of the usefulness of the book.
Evaluation: This is such a fun, entertaining book. It would make a great tool for all the mothers who try, sometimes in vain, to convince their kids not to put everything in their mouths.
Published by Algonquin Books, 2009