Wicked Plants

Wicked News–and More News–and Still More!

My Neglected, Weedy, Overgrown Garden Gets Some Visitors

Wow–it's been a busy autumn for me.  My friends at Fine Gardening paid a visit to Humboldt County a couple weeks ago.  I tried to talk them out of coming to my garden, given the sorry, neglected state it's fallen into while I've been on the road, but they were determined and quite persuasive.  I'm sure we'll see photos and incriminating video on their website soon, so stay tuned.  Oh, and I've also got a short piece in the December issue of Fine Gardening about my "three garden wishes," and another piece coming up soon.  That I have not yet written.  So more about that after I write it.

Television!  More Television!

In other news, there are two things coming up to check out on TV:  the Botany of Desire documentary on PBS, which airs October 28 and includes an interview with me for the section on tulips, and the eagerly-anticipated Cake Boss episode on TLC, airing October 26, in which Buddy makes a Wicked Plants cake and delivers it to me at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. (The cake was unbelievably delicious, by the way.  Those cakes are not just about their looks!)

Travel!  More Travel!

So tune in for those two things.  I'm also on the road a lot this month, with events scheduled in  Orange County, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Austin.   2010 is already starting to look busy–I'll be back in southern California, and then Kansas City, Lincoln, NE, Palm Beach, FL, Memphis, northern California, and more.  See the whole schedule here.

Let's Go to the Spa!

Oh, and in case you've been thinking about planning a spa trip (and you were, weren't you?) I'm going to be at Lake Austin Spa around April 19-21 as part of a special week of gardening events.  Come on–you owe it to yourself!  When are we ever going to get to sit around and chat about gardening in our robes and slippers, if not at Lake Austin Spa?  Their garden is unbelievable, the food is amazing–and, well, it's a spa.  What's not to like?

Help Me Stay Busy and Further Neglect My Garden.

And finally, there's this.  I've had speaking requests from several areas around the country and I'd like to try to put together a bunch of events in each region.  So if you've got a garden club, book group, conference, or anything else coming up in one of these regions, I hope you'll get in touch:

Washington/Oregon/Idaho, perhaps in early October 2010

England (!), perhaps in fall 2010.

North/South Carolina

Alaska sometime in the summer (Please, let it be the summer!)

Canada–Calgary?  Toronto?

Sound interesting?  Details on speaking engagements are here.

Or We Could All Just Sit in Front of Our Computers.

Did I mention that I've been doing webcam and videoconference events with libraries, book clubs, and garden clubs? It's surprisingly easy, and it's the next best thing to being there.  Check it out here.

Wicked Plants at Google

On the book tour last month I had the extraordinary experience of getting to visit Google and give a lunchtime author talk to the employees.  I was a little star-struck, to tell you the truth.  It’s a very cool set-up–I was speaking to a group there in Mountainview, but there were other people watching via videoconference at some of Google’s other offices.

After the talk, I got to take a tour of their beautiful and eco-friendly campus and avail myself of one of those notorious Google employee perks, the free lunch.  I even bought a t-shirt. What a day.

And I Thought Coke Had Some Funny Ingredients!

Turns out Coca-Cola isn't the only soft drink to have some interesting botanical ingredients.  Yes, Coke still contains coke–or at least, a cocaine-free extract of the coca leaf, but did you know that the original formula for Dr. Pepper may have contained the narcotic mandrake root?

Check out this auction listing for a handwritten ledger book from the Waco Drug Store.  It contains a recipe for "Dr. Pepper Pepsin Bitters." Some of the ingredients are illegible on my screen, but mandrake is certainly there.

In case this listing disappears by the time you read this, I must share some of the other wonderful recipes in this notebook, which, by the way, has an opening bid of $25,000:

Dr. Wilkes Dead Shot for Tape Worm
Red Lead Ointment

Indelible Ink
La Grippe Remedies
Orange-Flower Skin Food
Coating Solution for Rx Counter
Bust Developer
Castles Hair Restorer
Stephen's Condition Powder
Miller Chill Tonic
Conger's Horse Powder

I could totally use a Miller Chill Tonic about now.  Is it five o'clock yet?

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.

My Poison Box

Poison box

When I first started writing Wicked Plants, I had this idea for something I wanted to do on the book tour.  "I'm going to find some kind of old leather doctor's bag," I told my editor one day in New York, "filled with little vials and boxes.  I'll put my poisons in there–strychnine seeds, castor bean, hemlock root–and I'll take it on the book tour." 

I said that as if something like that just existed and it was only a matter of me finding it.  Not that I had ever seen anything precisely like that for sale before.

Later that day, I was walking through the East Village when I came across Obscura Antiques and Oddities,  exactly the sort of place that would sell a weird old medical bag.

And in fact, they had one.  A square leather carrying case lined inside with red velvet.  Filled with little glass vials.  And guess what?  The vials already had wicked plants in them.

I am not making this up.  There was an Opium vial, a Belladonna vial, a Digitalis vial…and many cures, too, from chloroform to mustard powder.  A leaflet tucked inside the lid read "Poisons with Antidotes."

Wow.  It was way more than I expected to spend, but Scott encouraged me to get it.  "You think you're going to find another one of these somewhere?" he said.

He was right.  This was a one-of-a-kind thing.

I have replaced some of the less interesting contents with poisons of my own:  rosary pea seed, peacock flower, datura, tobacco (I bummed a cigarette off a friend for this one.)  It's going with me to Cincinnati tomorrow, and if all goes well, I'll have it with me for the whole tour.  Think I'll make it through airport security?  Hmmmmm…

Below are some of the labels I made myself to match the authentic old ones in the kit.  They look pretty convincing, don't you think?

Poison vials

Wicked Plants–The Art

 I think Wicked Plants just went off to the printer, and in about six weeks I should have a copy.  That'll be cool, but what's even cooler is the spin-off project that has come out of this:  the artist, Briony Morrow-Cribbs, who created original copper etchings of 40 wicked plants for the book,is doing a limited edition set of the etchings to sell to art collectors. 

Check out the set here.  It includes an introduction I wrote and one by Briony, eachBriony2
set in letterpress type, and the set is numbered and signed and comes in a fancy box, etc. etc. 

It wasn't until this project was nearly over that I really stopped to think about how unusual it is to have a book illustrated with original copper etchings.  It's a very old technique that was used to illustrate botanical books in centuries past, but who does that anymore?

Well, Briony does, and as you can see from these pictures, she's young and energetic and really talented.  We were lucky to get her. 

If the complete set is out of your price range–they start at $2500–I think that individual prints will also be for sale, and we're working on printing a set of Wicked Plant notecards.  (Coming soon: Wicked Plant action figures!)

But seriously, the idea behind all of this is to give her work some broader exposure. Her prints will be on display at Brooklyn Botanic Garden starting May 30 and continuing through the summer — more on that later — and we're going to have an exhibit of it in our bookstore in May.  
Briony will also teach a class on drypoint etching at BBG this summer.  I'll post details on that soon, too.
And as long as I'm bragging about Briony, please check out her annual suite of botanical prints. I'm not sure if there are any left from 2008, but they are very dramatic and richly detailed.  Click to enlarge.

Evo Morales on a Wicked Plant

In today's New York Times Evo Morales Ayma, president of Bolivia, argues in favor of legalizing the traditional use of coca leaves. He makes a gloriously horticultural argument, stating in part:

Many plants have small quantities of various chemical compounds
called alkaloids. One common alkaloid is caffeine, which is found in
more than 50 varieties of plants, from coffee to cacao, and even in the
flowers of orange and lemon trees….

common alkaloid is nicotine, found in the tobacco plant…. Quinine, for example, the first
known treatment for malaria, was discovered by the Quechua Indians of
Peru in the bark of the cinchona tree.

The coca leaf also has
alkaloids; the one that concerns antidrug officials is the cocaine
alkaloid, which amounts to less than one-tenth of a percent of the
leaf. But as the above examples show, that a plant, leaf or flower
contains a minimal amount of alkaloids does not make it a narcotic.

His point is that any number of plants contain compounds that may harm or heal.  In the case of the coca plant, putting a leaf between the cheek and gum the way members of Andean cultures have for centuries delivers nothing like the distilled high delivered by an extract known as cocaine.

And in fact, it is worth pointing out that coca leaves were chewed by Andean peoples long before Europeans arrived and invented cocaine.  One could argue that Europeans (and Americans) should go deal with cocaine in their own country and leave the bushes growing in the Bolivian mountains alone.

And this is fair, to a point, although it doesn't explain away Andean farmers who are growing the plant for cocaine production rather than traditional use.

Regardless.  I included quite a few illegal plants in Wicked Plants, and I have to say that the idea of outlawing a plant is as odd to me as outlawing a bird or a pebble.  It is also surprising to see the number of plants that are perfectly legal, but far more harmful than an illegal plant like cannabis or opium poppy.  (Castor bean, for example.  Hemlock.  Salvia divinorum.) How and why we outlaw plants is an artifact of history that bears little relationship to the actual threat they pose.

Now, what we do with that plant is another matter entirely, and this, I think, is Morales' point.  Leave the plant alone, and concentrate on the manufacturers, dealers, and distributors of its extract.