Edward Gorey, the late writer and illustrator best known for his gleefully ghastly fictions, would feel right at home in Amy Stewart's garden of poisonous plants in northern California. In fact, it's easy to imagine his blithely bloodthirsty spirit whispering in her ear as she wrote Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. • Stewart's horrifying, compulsively readable handbook really should come with a money-saving coupon for a hazmat suit, since no gardener in his or her right mind is likely to venture into the herb garden without one after digesting her oddly tasty stew of villainous vegetables. • Stewart's research trots the globe in search of rogues and evildoers, from tropical rainforests (source of arrow poisons like curare) to dusty deserts (home of the coyotillo bush, whose berries contain a compound capable of inducing quadriplegia), but many of her ne'er-do-wells are right at home in Florida.
Let's start with that darling of landscapers, the sago palm (a.k.a. false sago, fern palm and cycad).
"What most people don't realize," Stewart writes, "is that all parts of the plants, especially the leaves and seeds, contain carcinogens and neurotoxins. Pets are routinely poisoned by nibbling on the plant, and it has been responsible for widespread cases of human poisoning as well."
Good grief! And then there's oleander (a.k.a. the be-still tree), that ubiquitous flowering shrub we pass by the hundreds every day that is "implicated in a surprising number of murders and accidental deaths," not to mention castor bean, that denizen of warm, mild winter climes like ours, that produces not only castor oil but also ricin, the poison used to snuff commie defector Georgi Markov in London in 1978. The KGB was suspected in that hit, but ricin was convicted.
Stewart indicts plenty more leafy denizens of roadsides and gardens, from that invasive alien water hyacinth(crimes include choking waterways, clogging power plants and providing a dandy breeding ground for mosquitoes) to rapacious kudzu (originally planted on purpose and hailed as the savior of eroding southern soils), but let's move inside and turn a wary eye to some common houseplants.
Did you know that in 2006 poison control centers in this country logged more than 1,600 calls related to philodendron poisoning? Or that ficus and rubber trees (also often found in the landscape around here) contain a latex capable of provoking severe allergic reactions, even, in severe cases, anaphylactic shock? Or that Jerusalem cherry (a.k.a. Christmas cherry) is closely related to deadly nightshade? Me neither.
Adding to the creepy charms of Stewart's book are botanical etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, which faithfully illustrate the plants the author profiles, and gruesome little atmospheric doodles by Jonathon Rosen. Stewart herself channels Gorey in a promotional video you really should take a moment to check out online at amystewart.com/wickedplants.html.
Oh, and the plant that killed Lincoln's mother? White snakeroot, which was ingested by a cow whose milk she drank.
John Bancroft is a freelance writer based in Bradenton.