Wicked Plants Author Amy Stewart Speaks at Desert Botanical Garden

Gotta love that cover art.
Gotta love that cover art.
Courtesy of Amy Stewart.

Courtesy of Amy Stewart.
Gotta love that cover art.

Any book titled

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities

is sure to grab some interest.

And if you end up grabbing a copy by author Amy Stewart, you won't be disappointed.

Since we snagged ours, we've thumbed through this attractive little book with surprisingly exciting subject matter.

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This one's not to be read cover to cover -- you can open it up to any page and read a five- to nine -paragraph explanation of "wicked" plants. Each one is labeled "intoxicating," "Dangerous," "Illegal," "Deadly," and other categories.

The best part? Whenever possible, Stewart connects a real-life story to the plant. Many are juicy stories involving poisonings (a Scottish tailor died in 1845 because his kids accidentally made him a sandwich with Poison Hemlock), intoxication (researchers believe that Ergot, a toxic fungus that infects rye, could have caused the nutty behavior of the Salem, MA girls in the winter of 1691), and cold-blooded murders (communist defector and BBC journalist Georgi Markov was assassinated by Castor Bean poisoning in 1978).

Stewart will visit DBG tomorrow, Wednesday, October 6, at 7 p.m. We caught up with the New York Times best selling author for a little Q&A.

How did you first get interested in wicked plants?
When I was doing research for my previous book about the global cut flower business, Flower Confidential, I was visiting a lot of botanists and plant breeders, and it seemed like everybody I visited had some odd or interesting or possibly subversive plant in their greenhouse. People were always pulling me aside to show me something unusual or even dangerous. It just got me thinking that there really are a lot of rather alarming plants out there, many of which have had a serious impact on human affairs.

I set out not to write about every deadly, dangerous, illegal, immoral, or offensive plant in the world, but instead to focus on those that had interesting back stories -- a villain, a victim, some kind of plant/human interaction. As you can imagine, those interactions usually didn't go very well for the humans.

In your opinion, which plant is the most wicked?
If you want to go by the number of people a plant has killed, tobacco is the clear winner, with over 90 million dead since we started counting. Tobacco plants produce a nifty little insecticide called nicotine. It's a powerful poison that kills bugs, which is why the plant manufactures it. Nicotine is such an effective poison that it used to be sold as a bug spray. It was actually so dangerous that it was taken off the shelves. (Don't ever use
tobacco as an insecticide, by the way --- it can spread plant diseases in your garden, and it does far more harm than good.)

What's the most frightening "botanical atrocity" you've come across in your research?
Well, I was always looking for a good murder. Really, this book is more like a collection of true life murder mysteries involving plants than anything else. I found a serial killer physician who used strychnine -- the seeds of the strychnine tree -- to murder his patients.

And even a seemingly innocent plant like hellebore has been used in some very devious ways. The Greeks used the toxic roots of the plant to poison their enemy's water supply. It's the earliest known incidence of chemical warfare.

If you had to choose a death by a plant, which would it be and why?
Wow, I'm not sure I even want to speculate about that. Any sort of poisoning is a truly miserable way to go. Castor bean, a beautiful tropical plant that produces poisonous seeds filled with ricin, brings on unbearable pain and massive organ failure. Really, it's all quite unpleasant. Even a mild case of poisoning can cause quite a terrible upset stomach.

As desert dwellers, what should we look out for?
Well, in the desert you have plenty of painful plants --- spiny cacti and so forth --- but because of your mild climate, gardeners can grow all sorts of interesting tropical and temperate plants that are quite poisonous. For instance, oleander is full of cardiac glycosides that really can stop the heart. Now, this is not a big deal as long as you don't eat it for breakfast. But if you have very small children or pets who simply can't or won't listen to your warnings, I would rethink the oleander.

Another plant that does very well in Phoenix is the sago palm. It's incredibly toxic to dogs. I regularly get e-mails from people whose dogs died after nibbling on the woody base or chewing a couple of leaves. You really have to know your pets -- some pets are simply not nibblers, but others get into everything.

Although this may sound like a lot of doom and gloom, it's really a surprisingly entertaining topic. I have a very cool slideshow that introduces people to some of the more famous poison gardens around the world, and some of the more famous poisoners, too.

Author Amy Stewart presents "Wicked Plants - The Deliciously Dark Side of the Plant Kingdom" at 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 6, at Desert Botanical Garden. Tickets for the lecture are $15 to $18. Click here for location details.

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