Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book: “Wicked Plants” by Amy Stewart

The full title of this book is “Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities.” Intrigued? I sure was. I first saw this book in the gift shop at Longwood Gardens. I just had to pick it up and look at it. If the title isn’t enough to suck you in, the delicately beautiful copper etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs and the quirky drawings of Jonathon Rosen will win you over. Look, even my cat, Molly, looks intrigued. Or maybe she’s frightened...

“Wicked Plants” book. Cat sold separately. Actually, Molly isn’t for sale.
This encyclopedia-ish book describes various “wicked” plants, from the naughty to the downright sinister, combined with stories of unfortunate victims who fell prey to these diabolical plants. Poisonous, painful, intoxicating, invasive, illegal and deadly – they’re all here. If you are reading to find out exactly what plant killed Lincoln’s mother, prepare yourself to read most of it before finding out. No, I won’t give it away. No worries, though, this roughly 5” x 7” 233-page book reads quickly. I’m afraid it isn’t exactly good bedtime reading, though. I found myself only able to read two or three of the small “chapters” each night due to some of the gruesome descriptions of what ingesting or touching these plants can do to an unwitting victim. You could possibly develop a phobia of tropical places where some of these treacherous plants may lurk. Heck, you might not want to even brush up against a plant next time you take a hike in the woods. Better yet, this book may in fact make you afraid to plant anything in your yard ever again. Not even the innocent-looking lily of the valley is free from inflicting some nasty effects, such as headaches, nausea, cardiac problems, and even heart failure – if you eat it, that is.

I did find some solace in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who found out about Poison Sumac the hard way. Pioneering landscape designer extraordinaire Frederick Law Olmstead happened upon a patch and his face got so swollen he couldn’t open his eyes. He had eyesight problems for a few years after that, but it didn’t deter him from designing some world-famous parks, estates, and university campuses. In my case, when I was a teenager I fell into Poison Sumac while playing flashlight tag with some friends. My younger sister and I ducked into some bushes for cover and we found ourselves tumbling down a hillside of Sumac. Lucky for me, I landed on top of my sister. Unlucky for her, she got the worst of the Sumac while I only had it on my arms. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s very similar to Poison Ivy and just as itchy and uncomfortable.

A plant of particularly invasive and destructive nature is the Killer Algae. This algae was first noticed in an aquarium in Germany. Usually algae can’t live in colder temperatures, but this one was thriving. The algae ended up at the Jacques Cousteau Oceanographic Museum in Monaco where it supposedly was accidentally released when a worker was cleaning out an aquarium and dumped the waste into the ocean. That’s all it took. This algae now covers thirty thousand acres under the ocean, choking out all other aquatic life. Amy Stewart tells us that the Killer Algae is the “world’s largest – and most dangerous – single-cell organism.” It gets its name “Killer Algae” because it contains a toxin that poisons fish. In fact, this is what keeps fish from eating the plant and contributes to its widespread growth. It is one of the ultimate self-preserving organisms because not only is it toxic, it also can reproduce through propagation. If one small bit of the plant gets chopped off it can take root and form a new plant. It’s like the Terminator of the plant world: “That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” Or at least until the fish and aquatic plants are dead.

In the category of intoxicating, is Ergot. Ergot isn’t exactly a plant, though, it’s a parasitic fungus that attaches itself to grasses like rye and wheat. It can be accidentally harvested along with the cereal and bread crops. It can infect anyone who eats it, causing seizures, nausea, gangrene and more – even death. Ergotism is rare today, however, “hysteria, hallucinations, and a feeling that something is crawling on the skin are all signs of ergot poisoning,” says Ms. Stewart. The drug LSD comes from an acid found in Ergot. It is thought that this fungus could be the cause of the bizarre behavior of the young girls of the Salem witch trials.

“Wicked Plants” was an interesting read, that happened to also make my skin crawl from time to time – or maybe I have Ergot poisoning. It’s amazing what the wrong plant can do to a person. Maybe it’s not that old chemical spill or mass hysteria that’s making those school girls in upstate New York have Tourette-like symptoms, maybe it’s actually some sort of accidental plant poisoning. You never know… just throwing it out there.

There’s another book by Amy Stewart with more of Briony Morrow-Cribbs’ etchings called “Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects.” Even though this doesn’t sound like relaxing bedtime reading, I may have to check it out anyway. It will most likely make me squeamish and have me checking for bed bugs every night.

Ok, I can’t resist one last picture of Molly posing with the book...

Even Molly agrees, this book is seriously “wicked.”
Not as wicked as her claws, though. Check out those talons!

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