When Plants are Wicked

Wicked Plants, especially the ones used in muuuuurders (cue scary music) are getting lots of attention these days, thanks to writer Amy Stewart, whose book on the subject is a bestseller.  (She followed up with Wicked Bugs, an even creepier topic.)  Here’s Amy’s creepy Wicked Plants video, nowadays called a “book trailer”.  Remember when trailers were just for movies?  No longer!

Wicked Plants in History

From Wicked Plants I learned that:

In 1978, communist defector and BBC journalist Georgi Markov died a slow, agonizing death after a passerby used an umbrella to inject a pellet into his leg that contained ricin, the poisonous extract of the castor bean seed. KGB agents were suspected of the crime, but no one was ever charged with the infamous murder.

White snakeroot, a tall weed found in the woods across eastern North America and throughout the South, took the life of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, mother of Abraham Lincoln. She and several other residents of the small town of Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana succumbed to milk sickness, a condition brought on by ingesting the milk of cattle that had grazed on the plant.

And hemlock was responsible for taking Greek philosopher Socrates’s life after he was forced to drink it as his death sentence.  Amy tells the much more recent story of one California man who unknowingly harvested wild hemlock from his backyard garden and nearly died after ingesting it.

Here’s Amy showing off her own wicked-plant-filled garden on CBS Sunday Morning:

Plants in the Garden

Among landscape plants, probably the most lethal and one that I’ve grown myself is the castor bean plant, the tall, colorful annual shown at the top of this article.  I knew enough to grow it where young kids weren’t tempted to try munching on it.

But what about all the other “toxic” plants that we’ve been growing in our Maryland gardens for decades?  Like azaleas!  Though the ASPCA lists it as toxic, I can’t find any reports of actual harm to any pets or people from the act of eating an azalea.  Which makes me wonder, and wish I knew someone who could answer:  Do animals ever eat azaleas?  And if so, how much would they have to eat before it would seriously hurt them?  Whole bushes?

See, research is needed on this subject.  I’ve been asked about plant toxicity by worried newbie gardeners and have found the answers to be pretty near nonexistent. Maybe Amy Stewart will look into the practical toxicity or “wickedness” of actual garden plants sometime, though unless there are juicy stories on the subject, I bet she’ll pass.  

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