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.