2016 Reading Challenge – Wicked Plants

It’s halfway through December already and the year is winding to a close, along with my 2016 Reading Challenge. My final item on the list is a ‘non-fiction book on a subject you’ve been curious about’. I read Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart. I should clarify that my curiosity about poisonous plants didn’t come out of nowhere, nor is it for nefarious purposes –at least, not real ones. But poison is going to be important in my next book, which I’ve just started writing and the subject of which is still a secret for now.

Anyway, Wicked Plants is very informative and full of aesthetic appeal, since each plant features a drawing of it, for purposes of recognition. Each plant also gets a heading indicating whether it is deadly, dangerous, illegal, or intoxicating etc. Not all the plants featured are deadly, but all of them will produce some kind of effect. While full of historical tidbits (like the death of Lincoln’s mother, which we’ll get to) the book also has a strong educational slant, focused on being able to recognise and avoid harmful plants. The introduction gives several examples of things commonly understood to be hazards, such as new parents taking care to cover electrical outlets, but not necessarily thinking of the potential toxicity of houseplants. However, “3,900 people are injured annually by electrical outlets while 68,847 are poisoned by plants”, so clearly a lot of plants are not as innocuous as they may seem at first.


It’s worth noting here in a quick aside that poisonous houseplants are also a risk for any pets who might be inclined to nibble on the leaves. If you have pets or small children, please check the plant type before bringing it home.

So which poisonous plant killed Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln? Apparently it was white snakeroot, which grows to four feet tall and produces small white clusters of flowers, somewhat similar in shape to Queen Anne’s lace. If you’re thinking that it doesn’t sound like the kind of plant a person would eat, you’re quite right. Cows will consume it though, if it’s found in their pasture, and the poison can then be present in fresh milk or butter, leading to the name of ‘milk sickness’ for those afflicted by the deadly poison. Symptoms include weakness, trembling, vomiting, and delirium. By the 1920s, white snakeroot was commonly identified as the cause of milk sickness and the weed is typically eradicated from grazing land.


The poison from some plants can even be found in honey. Oleander is a highly toxic shrub with red, pink, yellow, or white blossoms, and the honey made from the pollen of these flowers can sometimes be poisonous. The bark is also toxic, and the smoke from burning oleander is also very irritating to the lungs. If ingested, the poison causes nausea, irregular pulse, and decreased heart rate.

oleander-1Some plants have less risk for transferring the poison, and don’t seem like a risk for human consumption, and yet still have a deadly history. I was surprised to read that monkshood was responsible for at least two deaths at a dinner in 1856 in Scotland. I knew monkshood was poisonous, but as a tall, flowering plant, it doesn’t look like food. The roots, however, are shaped a bit like a carrot and are white in colour. The root shape is what caused that tragic dinner party – the cook’s assistant meant to dig horseradish and accidentally got monkshood (also called aconite).


After reading this book, I could keep going for a long time with different plants, but I’ve possibly already ruined horseradish, milk, butter, and honey so I’d better stop here! I enjoyed reading Wicked Plants – aside from its usefulness for my research, I also now feel better informed about the risks of plants I keep in my garden outside (turns out even lobelia is poisonous). It’s not as dense and daunting as some non-fiction books can be, either, and the layout is really user-friendly.

This wraps up my 2016 Reading Challenge. Stay tuned next week for a peek at what new feature I’ve got planned for 2017!

Final 2016 Reading Challenge List:
– A National Book Award winner– complete, Fifteen Dogs
– One of Shakespeare’s plays– complete, Hamlet
– A mystery – complete, And Then There Were None
– A graphic novel – complete, Bayou
– Book in a genre you usually avoid – complete, The Wild Seasons series
– Book about or set within a culture you’re unfamiliar with – complete, The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon (duology)
– Book you haven’t read since high school – complete, Anne of Green Gables
– At least three poems – complete, Tennyson, Rossetti, and Shakespeare
– A book translated to your native language – complete, Gigi
– A book that’s at least 100 years older than you / a classic novel – complete, The Hound of the Baskervilles
– Non-fiction about a subject you’ve been curious about – complete, Wicked Plants

All the 2016 Reading Challenge posts can be found here.


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