Review: Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

(A bit of context. This blog will feature regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any
conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Errata: a bit of digging through the hard drive, and it’s amazing what you find. In this case, this was a review originally intended for Gothic Beauty magazine, that never saw print and never got a response after it had been submitted over two years ago. And so it goes.

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart. Algonquin Books, 2009. 236 pp., $18.95 US. ISBN 978-1-56512-683-1

Anyone who believes that gardening is a completely safe hobby is completely deluded. While it’s possible to produce a garden where the likelihood of accidental poisoning or injury is at a minimum, this means that it’s also about as dull as stale Wonder bread. Over the last 450 million years or so since the first terrestrial plants dragged themselves away from the oceans, the entire kingdom has found all sorts of interesting methods to maximize its range while preventing excessive sampling and snacking from animal, bacterium, and fungus. You have spores, blooms, and seeds, and you have monstrosities like the cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.), which propagate both through seeds and by snagging passing animals with thorn-covered chunks of their branches. Likewise, while many fruits are poisonous to humans, the idea is to discourage mammals from eating those fruits’ seeds while encouraging other animals: both nightshade (Atropa belladonna) and habanero peppers (Capsicum chinense) have the same strategy in tempting birds and repelling mammals, only one will kill most humans and the other (especially if the juice gets on sensitive tissues) merely makes the consumer wish for death.

In her fourth book, Amy Stewart gives a good thumbnail guide to plants we call “wicked” because they don’t meet with human approval. These might include plants used for intoxicants, such as mescal agaves and coca bushes, or with commonly used garden plants with a bad background or with relatives that can be deadly. In the process, she brings up some surprising examples of how little we know about “domesticated” plants: how many are familiar with the severe sunburns that can be aggravated by eating celery, or how soaking chickpeas and cooking kidney beans is essential? Yes, all of the expected perps show up (carnivorous plants, plants traditionally used in poison gardens, and psychedelics), but the real surprises come from discovering, for instance, the number of traditional houseplants that can sicken or kill if eaten or otherwise improperly treated.
The definition of a good garden book is always that it manages to teach the reader at least one new fact or observation, and preferably more than one. So what else can be said about a book that warns about the proper way to dispose of poison ivy (whatever you do, don’t burn it, unless you like that sort of itching and swelling in your lung tissues) or notes the number of ordeal poisons (used to determine innocence or guilt in some cultures) that can still be gathered in the wild?

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