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Wicked gardener shines light on plants dark side

Garden Muse

I've had my share of being attacked by plants. An iris seed pod punched me in the eye, rugosa rose canes tore into my arms and ornamental grasses sliced into my fingers. But Amy Stewart's book, 'Wicked Plants,' goes beyond injuries to the more serious damage that some plants inflict - paralysis, cardiac distress, even death.

The book came my way when I'd been toying with the idea of writing a murder mystery in a garden setting. My husband Tom, ever supportive of my projects, brought it home to help me find a poisonous plant. The little book with a chartreuse cover and gilt lettering was just what I needed to get more savvy about nasty plants.

Sure, you can search for them on the Internet, and find several books devoted to the topic, but 'Wicked Plants' is much more entertaining.

Amy's lyrical prose, deep interest in plants and wonderful story telling make reading about dangerous, destructive, painful, offensive and even murderous plants almost as much fun as reading a mystery novel.

When I heard she was coming to Portland to speak at the Yard, Garden and Patio Show (ygpshow.com) I called her up, curious about how she got interested in this rather sinister topic. It all began when she interviewed plant breeders and botanists all over the world for her earlier book about the global flower market, 'Flower Confidential.'

'People really into plants go over to the dark side, develop an interest in weird strange plants - illegal, immoral, unacceptable plants. A lot of these plants have actually killed people,' she said. So she started making a list.

Amy decided to write stories about what happened; not a field guide, but a book that would appeal to a broader audience. You don't even have to be a gardener to read it. Woven into the text are tidbits from science, folklore, literature and history - all laced with dark humor. The botanical illustrations add a deliciously creepy touch, like the chilling music that accompanies suspenseful films.

Her own home garden is in Eureka, Calif., where the climate is rainy and foggy, with cool summers that rarely get above 70 degrees. Although she grows some edibles - an apple tree, artichokes, and herbs - she can't grow tomatoes and peppers, as it's just not hot enough.

Like many of us who are done with the front lawn, she ripped hers out, replacing it with drought-tolerant perennials, including ornamental grasses and salvias.

'It's so densely planted that weeds can't find their way through,' she said. Chickens free range in the backyard, protected by a coop from nighttime predators such as dogs, raccoons and possums. They're separated from an unusual part of her garden that ties in with Wicked Plants.

Finding it odd to write about plants she'd never grown, Amy decided to correct that disparity with a new feature.

'I planted a poison garden full of wicked plants - daphne, hemlock, mandrake. … It's a very fun spooky garden, with skeletons in it,' she said. She even constructed tombstones as plant labels, using a craft store kit intended for making paving stones.

Although the book as well as her garden are seasoned liberally with whimsy and wit, there's a more serious side to consider when it comes to toxic plants.

'People make the mistake that pets will know about poison plants, but they do not have a shared genetic heritage,' she explained. For example, chickens will die of hemlock, which looks a lot like the common weed, Queen Anne's lace. You can recognize hemlock by the purple spots on its stems - dig it out immediately.

Beyond the quirky notion of growing wicked plants, Amy tells us how to recognize them in the wild so they don't harm us. At the back of Wicked Plants she also lists six poison gardens where you can see them for yourself. One especially helpful resource is the W. C. Muenscher Poisonous Plants Garden at Cornell University, designed to help veterinary medicine students recognize toxic plants that animals are likely to encounter.

Intrigued by Amy's writing style, I sent for a review copy of her forthcoming book, 'Wicked Bugs' (May 2011). It's nightmare material for sure, yet hard to put down. Be sure to read the entry about the Brazilian Wandering Spider, including a story about suitcases of deadly spiders almost smuggled out of Brazil.