Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

One of the most terrifying film performances of recent memory would have to be Emile Hirsch’s 2007 portrayal of the true story of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, based on Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction story of the same name. McCandless, an intelligent East Coast kid with a college education, was a philosopher in a young man’s body. In 1992, emboldened by past travel and the writings of Tolstoy, Pasternak, London, Gogol, and Thoreau, he set out to escape completely from consumerism and technology by living by himself in his own private piece of America.

By the end of the film, we see McCandless, attempting to live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. He was fairly successful at killing small game with a .22 rifle and eating various berries. But, according to Krakauer, McCandless was still burning far more calories than he was taking in and the calorie deficit was beginning to take its toll. Unbeknownst to McCandless, he was about to learn an even harsher lesson from Mother Nature about the perils of subsisting off plants.

One morning, McCandless apparently woke up in intestinal distress — vomiting, delirious, and seriously ill. He wrote in his journal, “EXTREMELY WEAK, FAULT OF POT. SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY”. Hirsch plays the dying McCandless with chilling realism as the gaunt, emaciated, and disoriented traveler starves to death.

Although many presumed McCandless died from eating some poisonous berries, Krakauer argues otherwise. It wasn’t that McCandless had mistaken a toxic plant for an innocuous one, but that he had been done in by mold. Particularly Rhizoctonia leguminicola, which produces the alkaloid swainsonine, and which had been growing on the potato seeds McCandless was eating. Swainsonine is deadly because it kills slowly by inhibiting an essential enzyme. “The body is prevented from turning what it eats into a source of usable energy,” wrote Krakauer. “If you ingest too much swainsonine you are bound to starve, no matter how much food you put into your stomach.”

Although McCandless’s life and death are harsh reminders of the potential stakes of living off of nature, most Americans — and humans for that matter — continue to treat the environment like it is their playground and with scant respect or understanding of their symbiotic relationship with the outdoors. Garrett Hardin hinted at this concept in his influential 1968 hypothesis of “The Tragedy of the Commons” and botanist Amy Stewart has also recently tackled the humanistic notion of denying due respect to nature.

If Into the Wild was not a strong enough statement about the very real dangers of living off the land without understanding the land, then Stewart’s new book, Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities, should be recommended reading for anyone who has even an infinitesimal interest in the outdoors. If, as the author states, “3,900 people are injured annually by electrical outlets while 68,847 are poisoned by plants,” then why do we still have this hubris about being smarter than flora and fauna?

Perhaps because most people are not fully aware of how frightful plants can be. “Wicked” is truly an appropriate adjective for this book as I was appalled by the fury of plants. There is, for example, the mundane corn, which does not slip off the tongue as a dangerous plant. And yet, the Native Americans knew that corn had to be treated with some sort of lime; otherwise, the body would not be able to store niacin, leading to the disease pellagra and what Stewart labels the 4 D’s — “dermatitis, dementia, diarrhea, and death”. Then there is the terrifying Cogon Grass, where “the edge of each blade is embedded with tiny silica crystals as sharp and serrated as the teeth of a saw”. Oh, and by the way, this type of grass can also intensify fire!

To aid the dedicated nature buff and the tyro alike, Stewart goes one step further and helpfully assigns all of the plants mentioned in this book to one of seven labels — deadly, illegal, dangerous, intoxicating, destructive, painful, and offensive. There is of course some overlap, but these labels are fairly representative of the insidious nature of most of these plants.

“Wicked” plants traverse the globe and Stewart mentions at least one in every continent except Antarctica. So, avoid mandrake in Europe; death camas in North America; coca in South America; betel nut in Asia; iboga in Africa; and finger cherry in Australia. There are also certain plants that are equal-opportunity enemies and exist all over the world like deadly nightshade, cassava, and killer algae.

Stewart’s book has two components: in-depth discussions of uniquely “wicked” plants like angel’s trumpet, ergot and the water hyacinth and then guides to certain types of plants that share one common characteristic. These categories include common, garden-variety plants that have the potential to be killers (azalea, black locust, daphne, foxglove, lantana, etc.); blindness-inducing plants (poison sumac, tansy mustard, milky mangrove, etc.); and poison-producing plants that have been used to kill (curare, strychnine vine, kombe, upas tree, etc.).

What makes Stewart’s book even more fascinating is that it deftly blends botany, politics, and history into a very appealing format, where botanists will be learning about plants from an historical and legal perspective, while historians can engage in some eco-friendly puzzling. A strong example of this would be Stewart’s discussion of the peacock flower, which is found in the West Indies and has historically been known to induce menstruation. The West Indian slaves had this knowledge and used it against their colonial masters [see rapists] by consuming the flower’s roots to abort their fetuses as an act of rebellion against their owners.

Or the author’s discussion of peyote, which became the most infamous drug in judicial history after it formed the basis of the Supreme Court’s decision in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), which resulted in Congress passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which allowed Sir Richard Branson to legally import ayahuasca into the United States (also mentioned by Stewart).

With all of that said, Stewart is the first to admit that this book is not a collection of poison antidotes and people shouldn’t waste their time flipping through the book to figure out what went wrong. She very helpfully supplies afflicted the reader with the number for the National Capital Poison Center [1-800-222-1222] and urges people to seek help immediately.

I suppose that on first glance, Wicked Plants may not appeal to most readers, who are either bored by the subject matter or who might snort with contempt at the notion of dangerous plants. And yet, as someone who usually engages in reading books with moral and philosophical bite, this book was incredibly enjoyable and did cause me to do some soul-searching.

Perhaps what need readers most garner from this book the knowledge that they must live their lives in a peaceful manner with respect to plants and not expect plants to live around their socieity. If, as William Faulkner said during his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail,” then there is no question that men and women must live in accordance and respect with nature to prevail and to create just, conscious, and verdant communities.

RATING 9 / 10