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Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart is quite frankly the most gruesome book of 2009. Psychotic shrubs, vicious vines, and poisonous petals - the book is a comprehensive A to Z of plants that kill, poison, intoxicate or simply make you as sick as a dog. It’s an unrelenting list of Mother Nature’s gangbangers, thugs and assassins.
Stewart’s book – complete with a series of beautiful but rather menacing illustrations – delights in how deadly plants have wreaked havoc throughout history. It’s a book that will appeal to nature lovers and gardeners, but also to those drawn to the morbid side of life.
Countless tragic accidental deaths are recounted along with how plants have been used by murderers and executioners. Poison ivy, deadly nightshade, hemlock, nettles and, of course, the biggest killer of all, tobacco, are all there plus many others – obscure and common. From a historical context, the book dips into Salem’s witchcraft, early examples of chemical warfare, a murder with a poisoned umbrella, Sigmund Freud’s cocaine revelation, the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother and the drug of choice for Somalian warlords.
Amy Stewart in a Lily Greenhouse
Credit: Scott Brown
The California-based author – who has also written Flower Confidential, The Earth Moved and From the Ground Up – teamed up with Briony Morrow-Cribbs, who provided 40 beautiful etchings, and Jonathan Rosen, who added macabre drawings.
Heavenly Monkey Press from Vancouver, BC, are also publishing of 20 portfolios of Morrow-Cribbs’ etchings from the book. Entitled Wicked Plants - A Suite of Botanical Prints, they will be printed on Magnani Pescia, each one will be signed, numbered and titled by the artist. They will be presented in a clamshell box made by Claudia Cohen with introductions from Stewart and the artist.
Abe - This book is almost a history book as much as a botanical book? Would you agree?
Amy Stewart - “Yes, definitely. I'm a gardener, but I'll be the first to say that a vine growing in a jungle all by itself can be kind of boring. When a person stumbles across that vine and decides to commit murder, it gets much more interesting. Also, I think people forget that plants have been with us at all these turning points in our history. So I was highly selective in the plants I included - I only chose plants that had interesting back stories. There had to be a crime, a war, an incident of some kind involving a real person, famous or otherwise. I was really after the stories, so I spent more time going through old newspaper archives, medical case studies, and history books than anything else.”
Abe - What’s your favorite botanical villain?
Amy Stewart - “I really love rosary pea, Abrus precatorius. It’s a tropical vine that produces these incredibly bright little red and black seeds that look kind of like ladybugs. Or candy. They contain the poison abrin, one of the most deadly poisons in the world. In some Latin American countries you can buy necklaces made of rosary pea - a very dangerous practice because the hard protective seed coating has to be pierced to string them on a necklace, making it even more likely that swallowing a few of them could kill you. I once had dinner with a woman who was wearing three strands of rosary pea around her neck. I said: ‘Wow, that's enough abrin to kill everybody at this table. Can I have that?’ Oddly, she wouldn't give it to me.”
Abe - As you researched your book, were you surprised by just how many dangerous plants are in existence?
Amy Stewart - “Well, I think it’s probably obvious to anyone with an interest in plants that there are lots of poisonous plants around the world. I own several guides to poisonous plants that contain thousands of entries. I mean, most of what grows out of the ground is not food for us. So most plants are not for us to eat. And those poisons are usually defenses - the plant produces it in order to ensure that it doesn’t get eaten.”
Abe – Wicked Plants has wonderful illustrations and etchings – do you agree they give the book a gothic feel?
Amy Stewart - “Yes, that was definitely our goal. Briony Morrow-Cribbs is a young artist who does copper etchings, and I was so glad we got her for this book. I first saw her work at Wessel & Lieberman, a rare book dealer in Seattle. She definitely has this dark, gothic sensibility which really helped to animate the plants and convey their wickedness. She’s known in the fine press world, but this is her first trade book. She printed a limited edition set of hand-colored etchings from the book, which have been on exhibit in the antiquarian bookstore I own with my husband Scott Brown (Eureka Books in Eureka, California) and they are also on exhibit at Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) this summer. She teamed up with Heavenly Monkey Press to do a portfolio of the prints as well. So the art really has taken on a life of its own beyond the book. “
Abe - Who’s going to read the book? Gardeners or people who like weird twisted stuff?
Amy Stewart - “Actually, I am really pleased to see that it’s making its way into the hands of people who like weird twisted stuff. I’m getting a lot of very, very interesting emails. There is definitely a sort of horticultural underground out there of people who are into dark and dastardly plants. But it’s also finding its way into the hands of murder mystery readers, and I love that! Those people love a good villain as much as I do!”
Abe - How many of these botanical atrocities have you actually come face-to-petal with?
Amy Stewart - “A surprising number. I have a poison garden of my own, and BBG has a lot more wicked plants on display. You can get a lot of interesting plants on eBay, I’ve learned. But there are a few I hope to never encounter in real life, including the giant stinging tree in Australia, which is rumored to be the most painful plant in the world. Its sting can last up to a year and be reactivated by heat or sunlight.”
Abe - What was your inspiration for the book?
Amy Stewart – “As a child I was often tormented by wicked plants on the playground. Now it’s my turn to get revenge. Actually, I'll tell you one source of inspiration - in spite of my propensity to read books in the bathtub or get dirt on them in the garden, my dear husband continues to buy me wonderful old botanical books. (I insist that he not spend too much money on them, for fear I’ll spill gin on them and ruin our retirement fund). He bought me an amazing edition of Volume 59 (Poisonous Plant) of the series Wakan Sansaizue, an illustrated guide to poisonous plants published in 1713-1715 based on the Chinese encyclopedia by Wang Qi in 1607. It’s incredible. He also found me a heartbreakingly beautiful edition of Rousseau's Letters on the Elements of Botany. The colored plates are incredible, and they include some wicked plants, including a truly lovely cannabis illustration - a popular wicked plant in Humboldt County where I live.”
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Lowest Price: $12.09