Aconite. Nightshade. Kudzu. Stinging Nettles. Voodoo Lily. Water Hyacinth.
The plants mentioned above are a few of the ones Amy Stewart delightedly and engagingly writes about in her book, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. She writes to inform us as well as attract our curiosity, whether that’s morbid or merely mild. As she says, because plants not only “nourish and heal, but [. . . ] also destroy,” they deserve our “guarded respect”—respect gained through awareness and knowledge.
Stewart profiles poisonous plants as well as plants that are irritants, invasives, and intoxicants. Besides learning fascinating facts about cautionary flora, Wicked Plants is beautifully illustrated with etchings by Briony-Morrow-Cribbs. Interestingly, Briony shares her name with two deadly plants, the Briony cretica, and Briony alba.
Speaking of distant relations, there is the “Botanical Crime Families” section where Stewart details how toxins or irritants seem to pervade entire plant families. Amazingly, we eat certain members in four out of the five plant families: nightshade, cashew, nettle, spurge, and carrot/parsley. For example, nightshades, which include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers. also claim belladonna, nightshade, tobacco, and mandrake. The cashew family contains cashew, mango, and pistachio as well as the poison ivy, oak, oak and sumac.
Stewart includes a good deal of history with nearly every plant and often offers a detailed story that relates to a particular person and the plant. You will learn about Charles Julius Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin; Professor Joseph Nowak who worked to build botanical weather stations; and, yes, the story behind the death of Nancy Hanks Lincoln.
Although this would be a sure bet for any gardeners who want to make sure they’re not planting any problem-child plant, Stewart’s prose and genuine fascination in her subject make Wicked Plants a wickedly good read for anyone.