Wicked Plants; Or Plants That May Or May Not Be Harmful/Destructive/Mildly Annoying In Some Situations To Some People Or Animals Or Maybe Not

I've had Amy Stewart's "Wicked Plants" for a while now (since at least July 2009). It's a book about plants, common and uncommon, from all regions of the world, that are dangerous, destructive, murderous beasts of plants that you wouldn't want your neighbour to own for fear of your own life. Or ones that might possibly put your cat in a coma if you smoke too much of it.

I read "Wicked Plants" in 2009, and have since (in April 2010) reread it in preparation for this post. One reason I delayed writing about this book is that I was totally being all nice and waiting for Mr. Subjunctive of Plants Are The Strangest People to review it--I wanted to read his, partly because I enjoy his wit, partly because he was the one who made me aware of the book, and partly because I wanted to see whether certain things that irritated/pleased me also irritated/pleased him.

But, I'm sorry, dude took too long. He mentioned maybe reviewing it back in May 2009, so I think it's up for grabs now, and I feel no shame. The extra push I had to finally write about this book was when Washington Gardener (a local gardening magazine) put out its e-newsletter in October 2010, which included a review of "Wicked Plants." I enjoyed the reviewer's balanced take on the book, which does sensationalize the plants it discusses, a point the reviewer sort of mentions.

In my opinion, one of the most wonderful things about "Wicked Plants" is that so many of the plants within are common and readily available, and the text is presented in such a way--easily accessible to a broad audience.

But, here's my beef with the broad-audience accessibility: It's not consistent. Because of my science-type background, and the semiscientific presentation of information within the book, when I read that "some studies suggest," "a pair of researchers writing for a British medical journal," or "advocates point out," I want references to follow up on and determine for myself what these studies, British researchers, or advocates were saying. One could write a book about literally anything citing "some studies," "British medical researchers," and "advocates"--or even actually citing them directly! There are always groups with dissenting viewpoints and research papers that seemingly contradict one another. This was not much addressed in "Wicked Plants," the fact that one or two studies that look at a couple of instances of potential deleterious effects of plant compounds might not actually mean that the compounds in question are in any way dangerous to the average person at levels they would regularly encounter. Without cited references to follow up on, I can't be sure this is the case, however, so it throws a lot of these uncited claims into doubt for me. Because of the vagueness in this sort-of-scientific approach, I also feel as if Stewart was being a little more sensational than she needed to be--the history she presents and the truth about the plants could have held her book up without the semiscientific scare tactics with faceless men in white coats!

Now, I must say, Stewart did give something like a reference in relation to Lewis and Clark's nigh-fatal expedition west--but this only somewhat strengthens my yearning for citation. And there is a bibliography in the back, which I approve of, but without linking those sources to references within the text, it's mighty unhelpful. (And they might be secondary or tertiary sources of the information Stewart included--I don't think primary information is listed back there.)

Along the lines of inconsistent scientific representation, in the first section, on monkshood (Aconitum napellus), alkaloids are defined, which I found to be helpful not only because they're mentioned throughout the book, but also because not every reader would know what they are. But in many other sections, words, concepts, or scientific techniques that I thought would have been helpful to explain were left up to the reader to decipher as best they could. For example, in the piece about habanero peppers, she talks about measuring a pepper's heat levels using "a new technology, high-pressure liquid chromatography." Now, wait--we explain "alkaloids," which are maybe not widely known but not unknown, but only call HPLC "a new technology"? What does it do? (And I guess it shows my background when I say I would have chosen the product-marketing term "high-performance liquid chromatography.") And why does she write that it's a new technique? It has been around for decades and decades--probably since before Stewart was born! A quick rewrite of the sentence in question to either further detail HPLC or delete it altogether would have appeased me as a reader with more than a modicum of scientific knowledge--as it is, this example, and the book, has a lot of loose ends that I would like tightened for science-presentation purposes.

You may think I am being nitpicky, and to be honest, I eventually got to that point, which is why I'm going to stop talking specifics now--I did really enjoy the book. But as an editor with a science background, these are things I think about on a daily basis--who will read this sentence/story/what-have-you? Will they know the term/technology/phrase? Is more explanation needed, or would more explanation seem inappropriate to the audience? The inconsistent way in which those questions were answered in "Wicked Plants" caused me a bit of confusion, I must admit, and made it more challenging to enjoy it.

But, this book was, in my opinion, well worth the money, despite all the bothers I had (especially the ones I chose not to mention--those are particularly nitpicky, such as how English ivy is included in the section on houseplants, and although she mentions dermal irritation as a potential problem, a big chunk of the brief write-up is about ingestion of berries. English ivy berries? Indoors? Is she serious? Also, because I can't help it, I have a comment about henbane pertaining to another part of my professional past: Pliny the Elder would never have written "braine." Both Plinys were Roman--they wrote in Latin. Because Stewart never cited the translator, she could alter the text however she saw fit and removed the erroneous "e" in the quote the included. I don't think that's nitpicky at all, I just think it's good form to either present information in a common tongue when not crediting any translator or credit the translator, so we can search the dude/dudette up and figure out whether we believe they translated the passage in question accurately. You know all those olde-thyme translators softened things up for a delicate population--Pliny the Elder could have been talking about a completely different part of the body!). The case histories presented within the book liven up the "learning" going on--while I wouldn't call this an excellent educational resource by any stretch, it is definitely informative and a good starting point for those who want to explore some of the world's more deadly/irritating/interesting plants.

And no, I didn't forget the amazing artistry in the book--the two artists did wonderful jobs illustrating "Wicked Plants." I quite enjoyed the layout, as well--it's quite a visually pleasing read! The above photo is of one of my favourite drawings, the aforementinoed henbane, but there are many other nice ones, such as the drawings for oleander and stinging nettle.

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One Response to Wicked Plants; Or Plants That May Or May Not Be Harmful/Destructive/Mildly Annoying In Some Situations To Some People Or Animals Or Maybe Not

  1. I know, I know, I know. The reason I haven't done it lately is because I kinda forgot; the reason I didn't do it soon after mentioning it is because I didn't actually like it that well (especially compared to Flower Confidential, which I love). It seemed kinda lightweight to me.

    It's not lightweight, particularly, but I have a long-standing interest in poisonous plants (and poisons in general, actually: I had my parents buy me a college-level toxicology textbook as a present when I was in junior high) and am a voracious reader, so I was mostly disappointed with the book in that large sections of it weren't news to me. (I'm a terrible, demanding audience for the books I'm most interested in reading, and find very few books interesting enough to read: it's like my life is a really boring, nerdy O. Henry story.)

    I would have liked a longer book, too, with more detail about each of the plants. I mean, it's bad enough the pages are only barely larger than postcards and half the book is pictures. But the market doesn't cater to me, because I have weird needs, and I (mostly) accept that.

    Considering Stewart's renowned hostility to houseplants, I was pleased to see her give them a couple pages (plus Cycas spp., Nerium oleander, and maybe a few others, I don't remember).

    I was a little bothered at not being able to follow up on the stories; more specific references would have been nice. Also I really needed an index. Some of the other stuff you talk about, though, it wouldn't have occurred to me to expect from the book.


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