A couple of years back, I needed a poisonous plant to spike a drink and kill a man.
This was not, I should hasten to add, for my personal use, but for a piece of fiction I was writing: a mystery story, a rivalry between two men for a young woman’s hand — one of them a botanist who didn’t plan to let anything or anyone stand in his way. Trying to speed my research, I approached a real-life botanist at the university where I teach and asked her advice, and soon enough she was leading me through the process of taking a handful of castor beans and a kitchen blender and… well, I won’t go further except to say that throughout the instructions, this botanist seemed particularly uneasy, even emphasizing to me that any google searches I might do on the specific topic at hand were likely being monitored by those involved in protecting national security. The story I was working on never came together, and so my botanist source is now probably doubly uneasy, wondering if our conversation really was a ruse and if there’s some poor cocktail party guest out there who simply didn’t make it to the main course.
All this is by way of prefacing how fascinated I’ve been by Amy Stewart’s latest book, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. I’ll admit it: While I own a couple of reference books on gardening, I’ve never actually read a book about plants straight through, and yet Stewart’s latest proved irresistible and a browser’s delight — a compendium of the plant world’s most notorious characters, from the socially unpleasant to the downright criminal, categorized under headings including “Dangerous,” “Deadly,” “Destructive,” “Illegal,” “Intoxicating,” “Offensive,” and just plain “Painful” (chiles rank high in that latter listing). From the potentially fatal allure of belladonna to the risk associated with the common cashew (who knew?), Stewart covers it all, balancing detailed scientific knowledge with richly entertaining anecdotes spanning the full course of human history. As I read along, I couldn’t help but think of the fascination that people have always had with the odd and awful, and I remembered fairly recent articles about people crowding botanical gardens on the promise of plants that smell repulsive, emitting odors like rotting meat — and no sooner did those articles cross my mind than I came across Stewart’s section on “Social Misfits,” discussing just such plants. And as an allergy sufferer myself, I couldn’t help but laugh — bitterly, between tissues — about the “Lawn of Death” essay, which included Kentucky Bluegrass (“suburban allergies”) alongside Johnson Grass, whose “young shoots contain enough cyanide to kill a horse.” (And it’s worth emphasizing that the artwork — etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs and illustrations by Jonathon Rosen — is dreadfully delicious in its own right.)
Stewart was gracious enough to indulge my further curiosity about Wicked Plants and to entertain a few questions here about the research for the book and the joy she took in writing it.
Art Taylor: As soon as I saw Wicked Plants, I was immediately pulled in — and immediately began reflecting on my attraction to this subject, an attraction that I anticipate will be shared by many. What do you think is the root (pun unintentional) of people’s fascination with disgusting, dangerous, and even deadly plants? And in writing the book, how did you balance the scientific, on the one hand, with the scary and sometimes scandalous on the other?
Amy Stewart: I’m glad it drew you in — that’s exactly what I wanted to do, to attract people who otherwise have no particular interest in plants or gardening. I see this as a book that’s as much about people and poisons as it is about plants. I mean, a plant alone in a jungle or a forest is not terribly interesting to most people all by itself. But when a person comes along and figures out how to commit a crime using that plant — now you’ve got a story!
I think the fascination for people comes from the fact that we all love a good story, and we really do like to be frightened, don’t we? Haunted houses, detective stories, thrillers — we love to be kept on the edge of our seats. So for me, the villains and the crimes and the disasters came first. I chose plants that had good backstories. I tried to include just enough scientific information about the precise mechanism at work — how the poison works, how the thorn can get embedded in the skin — to help flesh out these plants as characters. I also wanted to give just enough horticultural information to give a sense of what the plant looks like — it’s a 50 foot-tall tree that grows in the tropics or it’s a lovely little flower that blooms in spring — without making people feel like they were reading a reference book.
You have your own “poison garden.” At what point does a plant go from being a curiosity worth cultivating to an abomination that should be eradicated?
Well, of course we’re doing our best to eradicate invasive plants like kudzu, but apart from that, it’s important to remember that these plants develop these crazy, elaborate poisons and painful barbs for a reason. The fact that plants can’t move around means that they really have to get very creative about protecting themselves and about spreading their seed. If we get harmed along the way — well, that’s our own carelessness!
Throughout the book, you offer a broad historical and geographical perspective, from the nepenthe of Homer’s Odyssey in the section on “Opium Poppy” to the ordeal poisons of 19th-century West Africa to the 1978 assassination of a KGB agent with an umbrella laced with ricin. How did you go about your research into stories and anecdotes? And which of the stories that you found and shared here was the most interesting or surprising to you?
The research was great fun. I spent a lot of time with newspaper archives looking for obscure and odd tales of plant poisonings, like the 1856 dinner party in Scotland in which some of the guests were killed by a monkshood used in the roast. That was a newspaper report. I also searched medical journals and case studies, and of course I just read a lot of history. The story about killer algae escaping from an aquarium in Monaco was really fascinating; I highly recommend Alexandre Meinesz’s book Killer Algae about the process by which that plant escaped into the oceans and what was — or wasn’t — done to stop it.
Oh, and the story of milksickness — wow. This is how Abraham Lincoln’s mother died. Cows grazed on white snakeroot, which sickened the cows and poisoned their milk. People knew that there would be these outbreaks of poisoned milk, but they didn’t know why. So I’d read news accounts in, say, Chicago, of someone figuring out that white snakeroot was the culprit. Then, twenty years later in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there were still reports of milksickness outbreaks. News traveled so slowly. It’s really heartbreaking. Lincoln lost his mother to milksickness when he was only nine.
Throughout the book, what guidelines did you set yourself about which plants to feature and which ones wouldn’t make the grade as awful enough to be included? And any plant that didn’t make the book that you now wish you’d included?
Every plant had to have a specific story to accompany it. I needed victims! And I wanted a balance between old and new—so sometimes it was Socrates being sentenced to death by hemlock, and sometimes it was something more recent, like a woman on California’s death row right now who tried to kill her husband with oleander.
Speaking of death row… and that Scottish dinner party you mentioned earlier…. You take special care to offer caution and advice about accidental poisonings, from including the toll-free number to the poison control center in your introduction to closing the book with an “Antidote” page in your end notes. Beyond accidental troubles, have you at any point been worried that the book might fall into more nefarious hands?
The book definitely has this diabolical sense of fun—I make no secret of the fact that I love villains and bad boys—but I really do think that by talking about the plant kingdom’s dark side in a way that is a little more playful will get people engaged and cause them to really take notice and think about the natural world in a new way. Nature’s powerful, and I think we need to respect that power.
Will it inspire somebody to commit a botanical murder? I guess you could ask the same question about any murder mystery or, for that matter, every episode of Law & Order. The fact is that there’s already plenty of information out there about poisonous plants. Any library will have several great reference books that detail hundreds of poisonous plants and give much more information about their toxic effects than I do. And of course there’s an overwhelming amount of information on the Internet, some of it dangerously inaccurate. I hope I’m raising awareness and getting people to really stop and think about that shrub by the front door or that berry they’re tempted to eat on a hike.
For more on Stewart, check out this feature in the May 20 New York Times and don’t miss the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s summer show, inspired by the book.