Book Review: Wicked Plants

To be truthful, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities came home from the library because its cover resembles a Harry Potter textbook.

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities(Image from Amazon)

Lucky for me, sometimes a book’s cover really does enclose an irresistibly good book. Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart introduces nefarious green things from around the world with brief descriptions and stories. The plants range from obnoxious and invasive to illegal, intoxicating, painful, dangerous, destructive, and deadly. Some are well known, like marijuana or the poison-dart tipper curare. Others are terrifying freaks like the Australian Stinging Tree with neurotoxin-laced spines so painful that some victims have heart attacks from the sheer agony. The most surprising lesson of the book though, was just how risky the everyday growing things around us are.

We know not to eat strange fruits or berries in the wild, and we don’t walk through the poison ivy, chew on hemlock or yew twigs,or ingest foxglove. But how many people have houseplants like Peace Lilies, English Ivy, Philodendron, Kalanchoes or Rubber trees? Between them there’s potential for skin irritation, burning of the mouth, nausea, blistering, abdominal pain, and allergic reactions leading to anaphylactic shock.

What about the produce we eat? Celery causes sun sensitivity resulting in severe burns. Just four or five undercooked or raw red kidney beans (not uncommon with slow cookers) can bring on vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea. We don’t eat raw or green-tinted potatoes because they contain a poison called solanine causing nausea, vomiting, coma, and death. Modern farmers rinse their rye harvest in salt water because rye and wheat are prone to a fungus that survives even in baked bread and triggers seizures, incoherent babbling, gangrene, and death. Reports of entire medieval villages convulsing in the streets, as well as the behaviour of the girls who sparked the Salem Witch Trials, are now attributed to this fungus.

Step out the kitchen door and things get even riskier. Gardens all over our southern state sport oleander but eating only a few leaves brings on nausea, severe weakness, irregular pulse, and a decreased heart rate leading to death. Hydrangeas contain low levels of cyanide resulting in vomiting, headache, and muscle weakness. Drive through our town in spring and you’ll see gorgeous azaleas blooming in every yard, but this pretty shrub is laced with a grayanotoxin. Eating any part of the plant (leaves, flowers, nectar, or pollen) can cause heart problems, vomiting, dizziness, and extreme weakness. Even honey made from their close cousins rhododendrons can be toxic. 

Being a florist never seemed like a high risk job but larkspur, delphinium, lily-of-the-valley, bleeding heart, sweet pea, tulips, hyacinths, alstroemeria, and chrysanthemums all contain irritants or poisons with symptoms ranging from mild itching to respiratory problems, paralysis, weakness, headache, nausea, cardiac symptoms, seizures, and death. There are alstroemeria and chrysanthemums sitting on our kitchen table right now.

We’re keeping all the plants around, of course, but I’ll be a lot more aware which leaves my future toddlers put in their mouths, which twigs we roast marshmallows on, and how thoroughly I wash my hands after arranging flowers.

I feel like such a life-on-the-edge rebel for cooking dinner, walking in the yard, and picking flowers. And for having typed “vomit” that many times in one post.

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