Beware! The sordid lives of plants behaving badly. A tree that sheds poison daggers; a glistening red seed that stops the heart; a shrub that causes paralysis; a vine that strangles; and a leaf that triggered a war. Amy Stewart, best-selling author of Flower Confidential, takes on over 200 of Mother Nature's most appalling creations in an A to Z of plants that kill, maim, intoxicate, and otherwise offend.
Stewart renders a vivid portrait of evildoers that may be lurking in your own backyard. Drawing on history, medicine, science, and legend, this compendium of bloodcurdling botany will entertain, enlighten, and alarm even the most intrepid gardeners and nature lovers.
In 1856 a dinner party in the Scottish village of Dingwall came to a
horrible end. A servant had been sent outside to dig up horseradish, but
instead he uprooted aconite, also called monkshood. The cook, failing to
recognize that she had been handed the wrong ingredient, grated it into
a sauce for the roast and promptly killed two priests who were guests at
the dinner. Other guests were sickened but survived.
Even today, aconite is easily mistaken for an edible herb. This sturdy,
low-growing herbaceous perennial is found in gardens and in the wild
throughout Europe and the United States. The spikes of blue flowers give
the plant its common name "monkshood" because the uppermost sepal is
shaped like a helmet or a hood. All parts of the plant are extremely
toxic. Gardeners should wear gloves anytime they go near it, and
backpackers should not be tempted by its white, carrot-shaped root. The
Canadian actor Andre Noble died of aconite poisoning after he
encountered it on a hiking trip in 2004.
The poison, an alkaloid called aconitine, paralyzes the nerves, lowers
the blood pressure, and eventually stops the heart. (Alkaloids are
organic compounds that in many cases have some kind of pharmacological
effect on humans or animals.) Swallowing the plant or its roots can
bring on severe vomiting and then death by asphyxiation. Even casual
skin contact can cause numbness, tingling, and cardiac symptoms.
Aconitine is so powerful that Nazi scientists found it useful as an
ingredient for poisoned bullets.
In Greek mythology, deadly aconite sprang from the spit of the
three-headed hound Cerberus as Hercules dragged it out of Hades. Legend
has it that it got another of its common names, wolfsbane, because
ancient Greek hunters used it as a bait and arrow poison to hunt wolves.
Its reputation as a witch's potion from the Middle Ages earned it a
starring role in the Harry Potter series, where Professor Snape brews it
to assist Remus Lupin in his transformation to a werewolf.
Meet the Relatives Related to aconite are the lovely blue and white
Aconitum cammarum; the delphinium-like A. carmichaelii;
and the yellow A. lycoctonum, commonly referred to as wolfsbane.
HABITAT: Rich, moist garden soil, temperate climates
NATIVE TO: Europe
COMMON NAMES: Wolfsbane, monkshood, leopard's bane
Excerpted from "Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities" by Amy Stewart. Copyright © 0 by Amy Stewart. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.