Thursday, July 2, 2009

Your Toxic Yard

With its irregular size and brilliant green cover, Amy Stewart's Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities stands out, just as it should. This small collection of botanical descriptions, biological reactions and historical anecdotes reads like fiction and, in some cases, one wishes it was. Fifty or more "wicked" plants are mentioned in this book -- usually with a physical description, a mention of how and when they are toxic or irritating and some instances when this effect was proven on livestock or worse.

Here are some of the more fascinating examples:

Calabar bean, known as an "ordeal" bean, was used in the African trial system to determine one's guilt or innocence. If you vomited the bean, you were innocent. If you died, you were guilty.

Cashews must be steamed open to avoid contact with the toxic shell or the eater will develop a terrible rash. They are in the same family as poison ivy.

Mala Mujer (bad woman) has hypodermic-like nettles that contain a toxic sap. Even brushing against this plant causes excruciating pain.

Aloe is soothing for us but toxic to house pets. If your cat takes a nibble, they will have tummy problems and possibly convulsions and paralysis!

Dwarf Mistletoe can eject its seeds from the ripe fruit at a speed of sixty miles per hour.

This book certainly made me a bit paranoid while I was reading it, especially about toxic yard and house plants. On the other hand, I am not the sort of person to put random berries, seeds, fruits or leaves in my mouth so I should be safe. As for the dangers of seed missiles or stinging nettles, I guess we all run the risk of contact with these sorts of plants when venturing into the wild yonder.

On a side note, Stewart's introduction mentions Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story Rappaccini's Daughter which has a poisonous garden as a main feature of the plot. If you haven't read the story, I've linked to it here. It definitely makes you wary of trusting the beauties of nature!

Going for a hike in long-sleeves and goggles,

Buy Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities on Amazon or find it at your local library.

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