The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities
Algonquin Books • 2009
A tree that sheds poison daggers; a glistening red seed that stops the heart; a shrub that causes paralysis; a vine that strangles; and a leaf that triggered a war. Stewart takes on over two hundred of Mother Nature's most appalling creations in an A to Z of plants that kill, maim, intoxicate, and otherwise offend.
Menacing botanical illustrations and splendidly ghastly drawings create a fascinating portrait of the evildoers that may be lurking in your own backyard. Drawing on history, medicine, science, and legend, this compendium of bloodcurdling botany will entertain, alarm, and enlighten even the most intrepid gardeners and nature lovers.
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Wicked Plants Reviews
What’s your definition of a “wicked plant”?
I was fascinated with the idea that there are evildoers in the plant kingdom, and that horticulture has a dark side. So I went looking for villains–criminals, lowlifes, miscreants of all kinds. “Wicked plants” include plants that have been used as murder weapons, plants that are illegal or immoral, plants that have started wars, plants that inflict pain, and plants that are badly behaved-they explode, they burst into flames, they smell terrible or destroy other plants in particularly diabolical ways. These are plants you do not want to meet in a dark alley.
How did you decide which particular plants to include?
Well, there are literally thousands of plants that are poisonous, painful, invasive, intoxicating, and so forth. I couldn’t possibly include them all. So I looked for plants that had an interesting backstory. There had to be a victim–a body count. If a plant killed someone famous, like Socrates or the mother of Abraham Lincoln, I included it. If it was involved in a notorious murder case, like that of serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, or if it had attacked a person in a particularly gruesome way, it made the cut.
So I spent as much time combing through old newspaper reports, obituaries, and medical journals as I did in botanical gardens and herbariums. The people attracted me as much as the plants. A vine alone in a jungle isn’t much by itself. But when a person stumbles into it and realizes it can be used to commit a crime-that’s when it gets interesting!
Have you met many of these wicked plants in person?
Many of the plants I included are familiar garden plants, like daphne and oleander. In Chicago I found some beautiful deadly flowers, like castor bean and datura, growing in public parks and even spilling out of window boxes at the library. It’s kind of thrilling to see so much wickedness out in the open like that.
But some of the plants are rare and hard to find. To see those, I went to England and visited the Alnwick Poison Garden in Northumberland. The castle was used as the location for Hogwarts in the first few Harry Potter films, and the garden itself is wonderfully gothic and frightful. They got special permission to grow cannabis and coca, both of which are imprisoned in wrought iron cages like the criminals they are. I also visited the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, a centuries-old apothecary garden that includes many wicked plants, and a USDA poisonous plant research laboratory in Utah, where they are doing fascinating research about the intersection of poison and medicine.
How did the Brooklyn Botanic Garden exhibit come about?
I met Scot Medbury, BBG’s president, a few years ago when I visited the garden. They had planted a beautiful, luxurious, and quite dangerous datura in their flower bed. I was enthralled, and I launched into an impassioned rant on the value of exhibiting plants that have interesting histories and checkered pasts. A botanical garden is so much more than pretty scenery-it’s a living museum that can help tell the story of our relationship to the plant kingdom. Scot was immediately interested in the idea of planting a garden of wicked plants, and the next thing I knew, we were planning an exhibit for summer 2009. I can’t wait to see so many of my evil darlings in one place!
How concerned should people be about poisonous plants in their gardens?
Actually, this is a serious issue that deserves more attention. I have friends with small children who will run around covering every electrical outlet in the house, but I can’t persuade them to yank out a deadly plant growing right next to the front door. This in spite of the fact that 3,900 people are injured annually by electrical outlets, while over 68,000 are poisoned by plants.
In the back of the book and on my website I list complete reference guides to poisonous plants. If you have small children or pets, I suggest taking a few minutes to look around your garden and make sure you don’t have any dangerous plants that they can get to. And of course, teach your kids not to nibble on unfamiliar plants.
Did writing this book cause you to re-think what plants you grow in your own garden?
Yes, but not in the way that you might expect. I have to confess that I love a good villain. I really wanted to grow some of them myself. I have a small, fenced-in section of my garden that is not accessible to my pets or the neighborhood kids, and I’ve filled it with poisonous plants. There’s only one plant in the garden that isn’t wicked in some way. People who visit the garden have a hard time guessing which plant is safe.
How did you find the artist for Wicked Plants?
I saw an exhibit of Briony Morrow-Cribbs’ art at a gallery in Seattle. She does these extraordinarily detailed copper etchings and she makes ‘cabinets of curiosity’ that reflect her fascination with science and the grotesque and absurd natural world. It just so happens that her name, Briony, is also the name of a wicked plant. It was meant to be!
What’s the most wicked plant of all?
Tobacco. It’s killed over 90 million people. That’s a truly wicked plant.