I like to browse our new book cart for books that would be interesting to read and share with others. I’m lucky to have found this little gem by Amy Stewart. Wicked Plants provides a good overview for the lay reader about the many kinds of plants that can be dangerous to humans and their animal friends. Stewart puts this danger in perspective when she lists a curious and chilling fact (especially if you have small children or pets): though there are 3,900 injuries per year from electrical outlets, there are over 68,847 poisonings per year from plants.
There are plenty of horror stories here that will make you think twice about eating plants in the wild (and may make you wonder about the food on your dinner table as well). If you have young kids, don’t let them make you a sandwich with plants they pick up from the outside. It could be made with poison hemlock, which killed a Scottish tailor in 1845 when he ate a sandwich made with hemlock picked (unknowingly?) by his children.
It didn’t take long for settlers of Jamestown Island here in Virginia to discover that the attractive weed prevalent on the island (which soon became known as Jimson Weed, or Jamestown weed) could cause serious delusions and convulsions. When British troops came to quell an uprising years later, they slipped some of the weed in the soldiers’ food and probably enjoyed watching the soldiers go crazy until the poison wore off.
Milk sickness was a common illness both in livestock and in humans in early 19th century America that claimed the life of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the mother of Abraham Lincoln, in 1818. It wasn’t until 1834 that it was found to be caused by white snakeroot, a plant with a toxic poison eaten by livestock and then passed on to humans.
It’s not all doom and gloom, thankfully. There are plenty of interesting, humorous facts here. Most of the ones I enjoyed were surprising facts and stories about illegal plants. Consider the opium poppy: it is the only schedule II narcotic that one can order through a garden catalog. The drug company Bayer created the powerful drug heroin from opium poppy in 1898 and sold it as cough syrup for children and adults (only for 10 years!) Marijuana was sold as a candy for children from 1864 to 1900 known as the “Arabian Gunje of Enchantment.” Sigmund Freud wrote in 1895 that he felt “unbelievably well” after sniffing cocaine in his left nostril. Leaves of the coca plant (from which cocaine is made) are highly nutritious, so much so that one South American government proposed that they should be fed to schoolchildren in place of milk.
I really like the design of this book. It has a colorful green and black cover, and the color of the paper is a light brown, parchment-like color that gives the book an old feel (almost like a book that you would find at Hogwarts). Many of the plants are beautifully illustrated by Jonathan Rosen with etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribs that look to be done in a combination of pencil and charcoal. They contain fine details that add tremendously to the value and pleasure in reading this book about wicked plants. Very highly recommended.
Check the WRL catalog for Wicked Plants