Published March 25, 2011

Delightful, witty, and charming are just some of the words that could be used to describe Amy Stewart, the award-winning and best-selling author who spoke at the Garden Club’s March 7 meeting. Ms. Stewart, whose lecture was entitled “Wicked Plants—The Deliciously Dark Side of the Plant Kingdom,” regaled the audience with tales of plants that maim and kill as well as plants that are strange, exotic, illicit, and immoral.

She noted that the public is often unaware of the dangers lurking nearby in the guise of a quietly growing plant. Dangerous plants can be found in public places such as near the Chicago Public Library or in a child’s play yard in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Without realizing it, we often live near plants that can cause allergic reactions, paralysis, breathing problems, cancer, or even death. To educate people about these wicked plants, she showed pictures of The Poison Garden found in Northumberland, England, which is used to teach school children and others about some of these dangers.

Humorously, Ms. Stewart said that if people work with plants long enough that they will “go over to the dark side.” She even has a portion of her California garden devoted to these “dark plants.” For her books, Ms. Stewart delights in finding stories of the effects of some of these wicked plants and the misfortune that they have caused. She related tales of strychnine being used by a serial killer, Socrates being killed with hemlock, vampires being victims of pellagra (a corn induced disease), and Abraham Lincoln’s mother dying after drinking milk from cows that had been poisoned by ingesting white snake root. She told of ergot which grows as a fungus on grain, can infect bread made from the grain, and causes LSD-like symptoms. Some think that in 1691 in Salem, Massachusetts, girls eating this poisoned bread became crazy (sick with ergot poisoning) and were thought to be bewitched!

The most painful plant in the world, Ms. Stewart noted, is the Australian Giant Stinging Tree, but the world’s most wicked plant is tobacco which has killed millions. She said that individuals should realize that “most of what is in the garden is not breakfast, not food.” We must be aware that some plants are illegal such as marijuana, poisonous such as castor bean, and dangerous to humans and pets, but as a writer, she delights in the deliciously dark side of the plant world.

by Jane Corbly