Book review: “Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities” by Amy Stewart, 2009, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (NC).
This is a cute book. It is a fun book. It was given to me by a lovely friend. It is not a book for the serious student of botany, but that is not its point: it is a good beach or by-the-fireside winter read for anyone, not just the botanically inclined. Amy Stewart has written on garden topics before and I enjoyed her book on the flower industry, “Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers,” as it was interesting and enlightening (I have not smelled a commercial, hothouse flower since I read it!) This wicked book is a breezy trip through some poisonous, intoxicating and downright irritating plants, from aconite (sometimes mistaken for horseradish root with deadly consequences) to yew (which can be deadly, or can be used as a chemotherapy drug, Taxol, reminding us that the difference between a medicine and poison is sometimes not the substance, but the dose). Stewart has entries on individual groups of plants, but also interesting entries on arrow poisons, deadly houseplants, fatal fungi and psychedelic plants. Her lists are neither detailed nor exhaustive- for example, she only lists a few noxious weeds in that entry. She wrote about the most interesting, or gruesome, plants to entertain and titillate, not to act as a reference point, and she achieves that goal well.
The etchings and pen and ink illustrations are lovely, though do not serve as field identification pictures. I enjoyed the illustrations, being a beginning pen-and-ink botanical illustrator (not for profit, just for fun!) Overall, a good book to get from your local library or bookstore for a few hours of reading pleasure.
Happy garden reading!