Photo by Delightful Eye Photography
The authoer of The Drunken Botanist works on her cocktail research.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” However, the virtuousness of certain plants comes into question in Amy Stewart’s book Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities. The book inspired a traveling exhibition that’s here at the Science Museum of Virginia through May 17. A discussion with the bestselling author will be held April 18 at 1 p.m., and is free with museum admission, though registration is recommended. A resident of Eureka, California, Stewart has published six books, including four New York Times bestsellers: The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Bugs, Flower Confidential and Wicked Plants. Her next work, a novel based on a true story, is called Girl Waits with Gun and will be released in September. She talked to us by phone about the exhibition, her books and her interest in botanicals.
Richmond magazine: Where did the inspiration for Wicked Plants come from?
Stewart: My previous book, the one I wrote before that — Flower Confidential — was about the global flower industry. I found that people who work in the plant world seem to all eventually go over to the dark side. They all seem to have these deadly, dangerous, illegal, intoxicating, obnoxious, offensive, horrifying plants tucked away somewhere. People were always saying, “Well before you go, come over here and look at this, you might be interested in this thing I have — now don’t tell my boss I’ve got one of these in here.” I didn’t want to write a field guide to poisonous plants, because those are already out there. What I thought would be interesting would be to really tell the stories behind some of these plants. I wasn’t really interested in whether or not it could kill someone. I wanted to know who it had killed. So I was always looking for the victim or the villain or the body buried in the backyard.
RM: Why did you single out the story of Lincoln’s mother out of all the stories in the book?
Stewart: I wanted to make it clear that this is a book not just for people who are interested in plants. It usually gets shelved in the gardening section of the bookstore, although it’s actually about plants that you shouldn’t put in your garden. I really wanted to make it clear that it’s a book for people who are interested in history and science and chemistry and, for that matter, murder mysteries. I think Lincoln is somebody we can all relate to, and you really don’t want to mess with Lincoln’s mother, so that to me is a pretty atrocious crime — poor little Abraham Lincoln losing his mother at the age of 9.
RM: What people can expect during the discussion?
Stewart: I think people are kind of surprised by how much fun it is. While it sounds like a grim topic, it’s something that I have a lot of fun with and people really enjoy themselves. It’s a talk primarily aimed at an older crowd, and it’s a really fun evening, so if you’re expecting a dry talk on plant toxicology or a talk on gardening, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s much more wide ranging than that and it’s really about the cultural history. Also I did a lot of talks with murder mystery writers who are looking for ideas about how to poison their characters, so sometimes I’ll get a few writers in the audience taking notes and I’m always like, “Now this is for fiction, right? You’re not really going to do this are you?”
RM: What if people are worried that a plant may be toxic?
Stewart: Every county, every state, has a good university agricultural extension office, and they’re an amazing resource and can answer a lot of questions about local flora and fauna. Also, the poison control centers are an incredible resource, and I think often overlooked. But really, the advice that I give to people is we [adults] need to just remember that not everything that grows in the ground is like breakfast food for us … but I think for very small children who are just going to put things in their mouth, or [for] pets, it is a good idea to just look around and see what they have access to and to take a few precautions. Don’t assume that just because it is green and organic that it’s healthy for us to eat — it’s not.
RM: Do you have any “wicked plants” in your own garden?
Stewart: For several years, I had a poison garden right outside my kitchen door. It’s weird to write about a plant you’d never seen, and these are not plants, for the most part, that you can just go walk into a garden center and buy. So if I heard that somebody had something like a mandrake, I was really interested and I wanted to grow it. I did this very elaborate, spooky, poison garden, and it was really fun for a lot of years, but then I started writing Drunken Botanist and the same thing started happening, where I was accumulating the plants that I was writing about and they were sitting out there with the poisonous plants and I thought, “You know, I can tell the difference between these, but not everyone can, probably, so I may not want one of my guests to go outside and pick something they think is meant for their mojito and it turns out to be hemlock or something like that.” So eventually the poison garden had to go, and it became the cocktail garden, which is far more functional and we use that every night, so that’s nice.
RM: You write about how lilies are deadly to cats, so is that something people should keep in mind when they’re bringing plants into the home?
Stewart: Unfortunately, I hear from people whose pets have died after eating something in their home, and it can happen. Houseplants are not sold as houseplants because they’re something fleshy for dinner, so there’s no reason to think that they are particularly edible or benign. They’re not intended as food, just like your shampoo is not intended as food. It is something to be aware of if you have an animal who likes to nibble on things.
RM: The book transitions between categories such as deadly, painful, dangerous, etc., but are you worried about people seeking out the intoxicating plants for personal use?
Stewart: Not at all. None of the information that’s in my book is at all new or hard to find. The Internet can put much more at your fingertips much more quickly — some of it unreliable, but nonetheless, it’s all out there. I’m not presenting any new scientific information about any of these plants, and in terms of the crimes committed and stuff like that, we have entire sections in the bookstore devoted to books on how to kill people and they’re called murder mysteries, and pretty much every show on TV these days seems to be about people committing crimes and getting prosecuted for them — I mean we have a million different Law & Orders on TV and those all show how people get killed, so I don’t think Wicked Plants is going to drive anybody to do something, particularly.
RM: What do you hope people are gaining from reading this book?
Stewart: I hope that it’s just good entertainment, first of all, but I hope it also gives them a broader understanding of what happens in the plant world. Plants are more than just green blobs that you see alongside the road. They’re really little chemical factories and they’re quite fascinating, so I hope that it helps people to realize that plants are involved in our lives in many more ways than they might have ever realized — good and bad.
RM: And the exhibit?
Stewart: Really, the same thing. I think that this exhibit is so different from a lot of museum exhibits, and it is pure fun. It’s just such a weird and interesting space to walk through and I love that about it. It’s a very immersive and interactive experience, so that’s a lot of fun, but they’ll get a lot of interesting science and chemistry and history out of it as well, but I think just the art and visually just the way the whole thing is put together is so, so much fun.