‘Wicked Plants’ tells of the many poisonous plants around us

Amy Stewart’s forthcoming “Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities,” is deliciously eerie. The cover illustration’s vining design suggests a graveyard, and the botanical etchings are ghostly and Victorian. So it makes sense that the text is entertaining, informative -- and a little unsettling.

Dozens of common plants have the potential to harm your toddler, your teen or your pet, writes Stewart, who also details those that have been used for millenniums for suicide and murder.

With the book’s release from Algonquin Books set for next month, we talked with Stewart from her home in Northern California and asked her to describe some of the state’s most sinister photosynthesizers. Chances are you pass by one or more of these wicked plants daily.


Which wicked plant is most common in Southern California?

Oleander is everywhere, and it has pink, red or white flowers that might tempt someone to eat it. In my book, I tell the tragic story of two Los Angeles toddlers found dead in their cribs after ingesting oleander. Sadly, it also is the plant used most often for suicide by nursing home patients. Poisonous plants, including oleander, tend to taste pretty bitter. Even so, there are more than 68,000 reports of plant poisonings a year.

Are there other common plants as wicked as oleander that people aren’t aware of?

Sago palm grows in Southern California indoors and outdoors. Every year, some poor people lose their dogs to sago palm poisoning. Dogs, especially puppies, will chew anything. All parts of sago palms are poisonous -- the seeds, the woody base and the leaves.

Any other ornamental plant especially dangerous to children and pets?

Castor bean, with its red leaves and stems, is gorgeous. I grow it in my own garden, even though I can’t give it as much sun as it would like. The beanlike seeds contain the deadly poison ricin. One seed chewed well could kill a dog or person. A man was arrested in Las Vegas because he was extracting ricin from castor bean seeds. The police said that there was no lawful reason for anyone to possess them. My thought was: Except if you’re a gardener! After all, it’s a legal plant.

Does “Wicked Plants” include those with narcotic properties?

Yes, opium poppy, for one. Garden centers and online sources sell the plants as breadseed poppies. They have wide, bluish-gray leaves and beautiful flowers. I grow both the single-petal and peony-shaped ones. The seeds are legal because poppy seeds are used to flavor foods. But as soon as they sprout, you’re an outlaw. I asked my local police what they would do if someone were caught growing opium poppies. (Here in Humboldt County, there are all kinds of illegal plants that the police want to know if you’re growing.) They laughed and said, “We have much more important things to think about. And frankly, our officers probably couldn’t tell a poppy from a petunia.”

Any poisonous trees we should know about?

There’s a lovely peacock flower tree. If I lived here, I would want to grow it. It’s tropical, with incredible orange and red flowers. The story about it in “Wicked Plants” is heartbreaking. West Indian women brought to the U.S. as slaves ate the seeds, which cause miscarriage, to prevent children from being born into slavery -- which not only would have been horrible for the children, but also would have increased their captors’ wealth.

What about invasive plants? Aren’t they wicked too?

Water hyacinth, common in Southern California water gardens, makes my skin crawl. It is one of the worst aquatic weeds in the world. Water hyacinth is insanely prolific. It can double its population every two weeks. Don’t release your baby piranhas into your local reservoir, and don’t let your water hyacinths loose, either.

Are you concerned that people might use information in “Wicked Plants” to harm themselves or others?

I’m not telling women who want to murder their husbands anything they don’t already know. Any murder mystery can tell them that. And the Internet offers a great deal of information, some of it tragically incorrect. I also emphasize repeatedly that these plants are dangerous to experiment with.

What is the most wicked plant of all?

Tobacco. The death toll is over 90 million.

Baldwin is a Southern California garden writer and author of “Designing With Succulents.”