Wednesday, March 31, 2010

wicked plants by amy stewart

a fun read

This book was shared with me by my neighbor, a Master Gardener and overall inquisitive person.  Wicked Plants is a handbook of 200 annoying, irritating, entertaining intoxicating, dangerous, and even lethal members of kingdom Plantae.  While I wouldn't use it as a field guide-- its purpose is to amuse more than to instruct-- this little book introduces some exotic specimens:
  • The shiny, black berries of deadly nightshade (belladonna) can cause hallucinations, seizures, and yes, even death, if ingested.  The plant contains atropine, a compound that has been used to treat poisoning from nerve gas and is sometimes added to painkillers to deter addiction.
  • Betel nut, the fruit of a tropical palm, is a widely-used stimulant in some countries in Asia.  It provides a mild high and energy boost, but is known to blacken the teeth and to promote copious amounts of red saliva.
  • In addition to its caustic sap, the Sandbox Tree produces fruits that explode loudly upon maturing, launching their poisonous seeds up to 300 feet away.  
And it illuminates others we thought we knew:
  • Celery can be a skin irritant, as it produces phototoxic compounds to defend itself against pink rot fungus.
  • Rhododendron and Azalea, popular landscaping shrubs, contain grayanotoxin in their leaves, flowers, nectar, pollen, and even honey made from the pollen.  Symptoms of ingesting this poison include dizziness and vomiting.
  • The trees of cashew and mango produce urushiol, the skin irritant that many of us have encountered through poison ivy.  For this reason, cashew nuts must be steamed open from their potentially irritating skins, meaning that even raw cashews are partially cooked!
If you pick up this book, you will also read about pernicious arrow poisons, fierce allergens, and vicious algae (no mention of the particular villain from Life of Pi, though).  Names of familiar historical figures appear throughout, including Lewis and Clark, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud.  Pop culture icons are also mentioned... mostly in the context of plants labelled, "intoxicating" and "illegal."

The format of Wicked Plants makes it a good choice for reading a quick chapter before drifting to sleep... though it might promote a few nightmares!  As a devoted plant-eater, I think it's worthwhile to be reminded of the complex, powerful nature of florae.  As the author suggests, we should treat unknown plants with caution, be mindful of what our pets are eating, and always wear gloves when gardening!

1 comment:

  1. What a super interesting post! I love learning about the benefits (and, in this case, downfalls) of plants.