Poison and Charm

  • Post published:11/16/2009
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 Things go bump in the night at this time of the year, but in her new book, Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities (Algonquin Books $18.95), Amy Stewart takes us on a tour of the more bloodcurdling aspects of botany.

            We all know that Abraham Lincoln grew up motherless from the age of nine, but I certainly never knew that it was white snakeroot (Eupatoreum rugosum) that killed his mother in1818. Nancy Hanks, her aunt, uncle and several other residents of Little Pigeon Creek in Indiana all succumbed to milk sickness. While people were able to connect the illness and deaths to the milk they drank, they did not understand that the milk was deadly because of the snakeroot that the cows ate.

            White snakeroot, whose flowers somewhat resemble Queen Anne’s Lace, can still be found throughout North America. Because tremetol, the toxic element remains active even when dry, it is dangerous in hayfields and pastures to this day.

            Stewart has many other stories about familiar poisonous plants like aconite, curare, one of the several arrow poisons, nightshade, opium poppies, and poison hemlock. Even with these plants she has found weird and amazing histories like the fact that Nazi scientists “found aconite useful as an ingredient for poisoned bullets,”

            In our own region there was a great panic just a few years ago about giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) that resembles a giant Queen Anne’s Lace plant. Giant hogweed is a member of a phototoxic plant family, whose sap becomes poisonous when exposed to sunlight. Damage from the sap will blister painfully and look like a severe burn.

            She also catalogs many plants that are not as familiar like khat (Catha edulis), a shrub that grows in Ethiopia and Kenya. In the United States it is categorized as a Schedule 1 narcotic, as is marijuana. According to Stewart “Khat played a small but pivotal role in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu in which two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. Gun-toting Somalian men stuffed khat leaves into their cheeks and raced around Mogadishu with a jittery high that lasted until late into the night.”

            The information is useful, and fascinating, but Stewart has a way with words. This is no dry manual of 221 toxic plants. Her method is to wander through history, myth, legend and literature as well as science as she describes what is known of these plants.

            Wicked Plants is a small and handsome volume with a poison green cover and browning pages that look as if it had resided on a witch’s shelf for the past century or two. The beautiful copperplate etchings are by Briony Morrow-Cribbs who lives in Brattleboro. Stewart points out that Briony is also the name of a wicked plant that can cause vomiting, dizziness and even respiratory failure.


            Amy Stewart takes us down a dark path into the garden, but Beverley Nichols, a British gardener and prolific author, leads us into a sunny garden with laughter and charm. Several of his books like Down the Garden Path, Garden Open Today, Laughter on the Stairs and Sunlight on the Lawn (just the titles give you a good idea of his approach) have been reprinted by Timber Press. In Rhapsody in Green (Timber Press $17.95)  editor Roy C. Dicks gives us a smorgasbord of Nichols’ garden wit and wisdom.

            The books that have been reprinted let Nichols speak again about his first garden and Tudor cottage during the 1930s, his manor house, Merry Hall, with its gardens during the 1950s, and as it was in 1963 when he wrote Garden Open Today.

            I love the phrase garden open today and use it often myself when I refer to my own Annual Rose Viewing, and other garden tours when proud (but usually nervous) gardeners invite the public in to enjoy the pleasures they have cultivated. My affection for the phrase is because I associate it with Beverley Nichols, whom I discovered shortly after I met Elsa Bakalar, my own witty British gardener, and with smooth lawns, brilliant flower borders and a well set tea table in the shade, my fantasy of life in the garden.

            Nichols is known for his rapturous language, as when he says, “The sky was very blue and the sunlight danced in and out of the branches of the great willow. There was such a multitude of shifting lights, so many swift sarabands of shadow, that you would say some giant and ghostly hand was poised above it scattering confetti through the tangled boughs, confetti of gold and silver, silver that melted into the summer air.”

            He is also known for his sharp opinions. “If I were artistic dictator of this country I would make it illegal for any householder … to plant another specimen of Prunus Kansan … the gaudy double pink cherry which every spring erupts like an infectious rash down thousands of suburban avenues.”

            Rhapsody in Green is a wonderful introduction into Beverely Nichols’ world, his passions, his crotchets, and his humor. He acknowledges the trials and the pains of the gardener from the hyperbole of nursery catalogs, to the inevitable backaches, but he also knows, “It is only to the gardener that Time is a friend, giving each year more than he steals.” I am in total agreement.


 Between the Rows   October 31, 2009



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