May 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart

Alright, yes, fine. I liked Harry Potter. But I would’ve liked those books much better if there’d been less battling of the forces of evil, and even more magically British coursework. I am always in search of top-notch real life scholarship on the Dark Arts, divination, and the care of magical creatures.

So, I was stupidly happy when Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities arrived in the mail one frigid Tuesday. (Alright, yes, fine, I wish I had a tiny, wonk-eyed owl to deliver my review books. Who doesn’t?) I expected a Michael Pollan-esque, fun, nonfiction read about ivy and hemlock, and there would’ve been nothing wrong with that. But Wicked Plants is much more fantastically enchanted than I’d expected. Complete with exquisite botanical etchings and whimsical illustrations, it’s basically a Hogwarts Herbology textbook, the kind that would’ve pleased Neville Longbottom very much.

Then again, Wicked Plants never gets boring or twee the way gardening books so often do. Amy Stewart’s style is surprisingly badass, and plants themselves are twisted and horrifying creatures, active warriors that can hold their own against more ferocious-looking and mobile life forms. I’ve probably tanked my credibility with all the Harry Potter love, but I think if you’re the kind of reader who’s more into Dennis Cooper or De Sade than J.K. Rowling, you’ll still appreciate this concise compendium of botanical evil.

While Stewart has a “don’t try this at home” warning in her introduction, this book seems like a great starting point if you’re hoping to poison someone to death, or just subtly menace them without getting caught. The blurbs about each plant are divvied into sections based on why they’re dreadful (“deadly,” “illegal,” “intoxicating,” “dangerous,” “destructive,” “offensive,” “painful.”) They are pleasantly instructive about how to use or misuse each plant, and the trippy ones give a good assessment of whether or not they’re worth it. The plants have wonderful names -- the suicide tree, bladderworts, butterworts, stinking hellebore, slobber weed (yes, it makes you drool uncontrollably). It turns out that some of the deadliest plants are humble and familiar staples that we handle every day -- for instance, please don’t eat any green potatoes. There’s an appendix of lovely poison gardens to visit, in England and Montreal and Padua and at the Mutter Museum.

Best of all, Wicked Plants manages to be simply written, funny, short-winded, and easy-to-read without skimping on magical, historical, botanical, or literary details. Where else could we learn that Charles Darwin was so crazy about the nastily aggressive purple loosestrife, a.k.a. “rainbow weed”? “In 1862, [Darwin] wrote to his friend Asa Grey, a noted American botanist: ‘For the love of heaven, have a look at some of your species, and if you can get me seed, do… Seed! Seed! Seed!... Your utterly mad friend, C. Darwin.’”

Amy Stewart is not a botanist, just a writer, and like Stewart Lee Allen, she’s one of our coolest chroniclers of the crazy, taken-for-granted magic that lives all around us.

Like any good villains, most of these plants are more alluring than they are off-putting. Even though it’s nice to eat too much trifle and then curl up in a dusty old library enjoying the pictures, most readers of Wicked Plants will want to go out and experiment with these sexy devils. Without any elite magicians to intervene, this probably isn’t a great idea. But who can resist applied herbology? It’s better than psychoanalysis or gunplay, for sure. “In the last few days I have felt quite unbelievably well," wrote Freud after getting ahold of a modest-looking coca shrub, “…I have felt wonderful, as though there had never been anything wrong at all.”

Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart
Algonquin Books
ISBN: 1565126831
223 Pages