Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities

Azaleas and rhododendrons, hydrangeas and alstroemeria, daphne and even my favorite Robinia…all grow vibrantly in my garden adding beauty and delight, without the slightest hint of their darker side—an ability to inflict pain, sickness, and even death.  Who would have thought?

Leave it to Amy Stewart and her bestselling horticultural quasi-thriller, Wicked Plants, to introduce us to some of the plant world’s nefarious inhabitants. With her signature style of wry humor and botanical knowledge, she has created an immensely readable reference book on fearsome flora—the potentially dangerous world of plants, be they ornamental, edible, land-based, or aquatic. She combines horticultural facts with bits of history, drama, intrigue, and humor, readily communicating the gruesome attributes of a wide range of plants, from well-known house and garden plants to more rare tropical jewels.

The book is arranged alphabetically by common plant name, interspersed with discussions of groups of plants in chapters with diabolical titles like The Devil’s Bartender, Weeds of Mass Destruction, Deadly Dinner, and More Than One Way to Skin a Cat. Plants are categorized by the type of wickedness possessed: from the merely offensive (the social misfits, stinkers, or just disgusting), to the intoxicating or illegal, dangerous, destructive, painful, and the downright deadly. The book’s unique cover, one of 2009′s ten top-rated covers by Amazon.com, gives the small volume the look of a handsomely aged, hand-me-down diary of loathsome botanical scoundrels, replete with antique-looking etchings and bewitching illustrations.

From the potentially deadly little berries of garden lantana (Lantana camara) to the creepy, noxious, invasive “killer alga” (Caulerpa taxifolia) that covers over thirty-two thousand acres of the world’s oceans, to mind-bending peyote (Lophophora williamsii) buttons, the book provides information on plant family, habitat, origin, and common names, the hazardous portion of the plant, and its effects on humans. It is an engaging way to learn about the risks that lurk in our midst; while not encyclopedic, it covers a broad enough spectrum of plants to create an entertaining yet educational resource.

Stewart, author of the bestselling Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers, tends her own wicked garden in Eureka, California.  In the introduction of the book, she notes,

“I confess that I am enchanted by the plant kingdom’s criminal element. I love a good villain, whether it is an enormous specimen of Euphorbia tirucalli, whose corrosive sap raises welts on the skin, on display at a garden show, or the hallucinatory moonflower (Datura inoxia) blooming in the desert.  There is something beguiling about sharing their dark little secrets. And these secrets don’t just lurk in the remote jungle. They’re in our own backyards.”

So, what unwanted rogues might be skulking about in your garden?  Check out this devilish little book; you might be surprised.

Nanette Londeree, garden writer
Marin County, California