Winter Reading Suggestions From the Files

  • Post published:01/22/2020
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Bringing Nature Home book
Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy.

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy

One of the best books in my collection is Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens by Douglas W. Tallamy (Timber Press $27.95). Dr. Tallamy, a professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, explains the importance of native plants in even in a small suburban garden.

In an area that is as open and wooded as ours we may not be aware that there is more to the need for natives than concern about invasive species that upset an ecosystem.  Native plants need to be available for native insects to eat so native birds can eat them.  We all want those birds!  According to Tallamy a balanced ecosystem needs more insects. It is when the balance of the system is disrupted that problems arise.

The subject is a big one, but the book is a page turner. Tallamy engagingly speaks out of his professional knowledge and his experiences in his own backyard.

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

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.

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart
Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

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.”

Girl Waits With Gun
Girl Waits With Gun – Just for fun about the intrepid Constance Kopp and her sisters. Lots is true!

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.

Not too many plants in Girl Waits with Gun, or any of the other books in the series – except when the ‘girls’ go to war. Amy Stewart is a great researcher!

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