MY TOXIC VALENTINE



Amy Stewart



Candy is dandy, but books don’t rot your teeth. Ogden Nash’s witticism aside, dental health is only one of   reasons to give your Valentine  a copy of Amy Stewart’s  Wicked Plants : the Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities instead of a box of chocolates.  Approximately the size of a ballotin of  truffles, this little volume is  packed with scientific fact and  anecdotes  rendered in polished prose and graced with eerie copperplate etchings  sure  to send a  frisson  down the viewer’s spine. Its subject is the villains of the botanical world–plants whose innocuous appearance conceals their deadly potential. Stewart  leads the reader on a fantastic  tour of the dark side of the plant world pausing to expose garden variety rogues such as  Kentucky and Johnson grass, both of which can trigger severe allergic reactions. It detours  through truck farmers’ country to reveal  the evil hidden  veggies  as ubiquitous as carrots, celery,  corn and kidney  beans and as unusual  as Jamaican ackee fruit.  It goes on to show that  standard items in  American cottage gardens–lily of the valley, bleeding hearts, larkspur, delphinium, foxglove, hydrangea and chrysanthemums, for example– can be lethal.
Stewart writes  that she did not  write her book to frighten people away from the outdoors.  Besides, danger also lurks in houseplants. Ficus trees can induce anaphylactic shock, philodendron can cause skin irritation  and so can the corrosive sap of Euphorbia.
When it comes to botanical atrocities, ignorance can kill.  Had Colonial America produced  a compendium on poisonous plants, Lincoln’s mother might not have perished at  age thirty-four, after having drunk  milk contaminated by white snakeroot, Eupatorium rugosum.  Neither would the early settlers of Jamestown, Virginia  had added thorn apple, Datura stramonium, to their diet.  I happen to be  one of the lucky people to have survived a walloping dose of the  tropane alkaloids present in datura , which I made into a salad when I was a pre-schooler. Although its toxicity varies, which explains why I lived to tell the tale, the side-effects of datura include high fever, hallucination and respiratory failure.
Just because your Valentine might be safe from contact with Datura, deadly nightshade, blister bush, peacock flower and poison hemlock  does not mean that he knows which plants to avoid when he puts together a floral love token.  Having read Wicked Weeds he will know that  azaleas, hyacinths, alstromeria, azaleas, Delphinium and many of the plants available at the florist’s on Heart Day are not exactly love tokens.   Briony Morrow-Cribbs’ copper etchings in Wicked Plants are in themselves a Valentine’s bouquet of surpassing beauty.

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