Author tells of deadly plants and who they killed


ELLSWORTH — A seemingly benign growing thing has the capacity to stop the heart.

Just consult “Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009) by New York Times best-selling author Amy Stewart. Stewart has written several horticulture-related books, including “The Drunken Botanist,” “Wicked Bugs,” “Flower Confidential” and “The Earth Moved.” Stewart led writing workshops earlier this month, virtually, at the Ellsworth Public Library as part of the National Endowment of the Art’s “Big Read,” which ran through Oct. 31.

“Wicked Plants” author Amy Stewart notes “Socrates was executed with hemlock. I thought it would be interesting to tell those stories.” GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

“’Wicked plants’ was my fourth book, so I’d become someone who went around and interviewed botanists for a living,” the author said. Before she left interviews, some botanists would pull her aside to show her illegal or poison plants they were growing in secret.

Whatever her interview subjects were growing on the sly, it was usually “either illegal or horrifying in some way,” she recalled.

That prompted Stewart, a gardener herself at the time, to begin thinking about poisonous plants, specifically plants which have killed people.

“Socrates was executed with hemlock,” she said. “I thought it would be interesting to tell those stories. Who has it killed was what interested me.”

And so, “Wicked Plants” was born, along with a poisonous garden at Stewart’s former residence.

“I was growing a lot of the plants I was writing about,” she said. “A lot of them are kind of hard to find. You can’t just walk into a garden center and find mandrake.”

“Wicked Plants” author Amy Stewart was a featured speaker in the Ellsworth Public Library’s month-long “Big Read.” ALGONQUIN BOOKS PHOTO

“Instead of plant markers I had tombstones and stuff like that,” she said. “It lasted a few years.” Today, Stewart lives in a condominium and her garden is gone.

Gardener or historian or anyone who enjoys stories would appreciate “Wicked Plants.”

Stewart tells a tale of a Scottish tailor who in 1845 died after eating a sandwich made with wild greens his children had collected.


“The children had made the fatal mistake of confusing the lacy foliage of parsley with that of poison hemlock,” Stewart wrote. “It was the last (and, one suspects, the only) lesson in botany the children ever got from their father, and one they would never forget.

Then there’s the lovely Morning

Glory, which Stewart classifies under “intoxicating or psychedelic plants.”

The seeds of the popular flower contain “lysergic acid amide, which may produce an LSD-like trip if eaten in large quantity,” Stewart wrote. While Stewart was working on “Wicked Plants,” she learned through the news that teenagers who had consumed the seeds either by chewing or making a tea, had been hospitalized with high heart rates and hallucinations.

Then there is Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), an invasive perennial that likes wetlands and has tall stalks capped with purple plumes.

Stewart classifies Purple Loosestrife “under destructive plants” as it is considered one of the worst invasive plants in the United States, costing an estimated $45 million annually in efforts to eradicate it.

“The plant easily reaches 10 feet tall and 5 feet wide, and as many as 50 stems can sprout from a single, sturdy perennial tap root,” Stewart writes. “If the rootstock wasn’t vigorous enough, a single specimen can produce over 2.5 million seeds in a season. Those seeds can live for 20 years before they sprout.”

The plant that killed Lincoln’s mother, at age 34, when the late President was nine, was white snakeroot or Eupatorium rugosum. White Snakeroot is a relative to Joe Pye Weed, which is popular for Mainers and others to plant to attract butterflies.

White snakeroot grows to four feet in height and has clustered white flowers similar to Queen Anne’s Lace. Cattle would eat the plant and then pass the poison to whoever drank milk from the cattle or ate butter or beef. “Entire families succumbed to the disease after suffering from symptoms that included weakness, vomiting, tremors and delirium,” Stewart writes.

White Snakeroot Flowers (Ageratina altissima) a common field wildflower, is poisonous for livestock to eat and for humans who ingest the milk of livestock who have eaten this plant. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO

“Cattle also showed symptoms of the disease. Horses and cows would stagger around until they died and farmers stood by helplessly, not realizing that a plant the cattle grazed on was to blame.”

The writer had no problem pitching “Wicked Plants” to her publisher, Algonquin.

“It’s murder and mayhem,” Stewart said. “There’s not much of that in the plant world.”









Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.
Jennifer Osborn

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