I recently read Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities as part of our Red Room staff book club, and absolutely loved it. I might be slightly biased, because I love plants anyway, but this book is seriously fascinating. There were so many things to like about it, I'm not sure where to start! Part reference, part story collection, it details over two hundred poisonous plants and provides a cautious tale for each one. Some are familiar (poison hemlock, deadly nightshade) and some were completely surprising--for example, did you know that eating a diet made up mostly of corn can cause dementia and death if the corn isn't cooked properly? Yeah, me neither--and it's not the only "harmless" plant that can cause trouble.
That, to me, was the most riveting thing about this book: discovering how many of the seemingly innocuous plants we live with are poisonous, how things that are so beautiful can be so deadly or dangerous. That had personal resonance, too--it reminded me of a story my mother tells.
My grandmother was an English native, born and raised in London, who met and fell in love with my grandfather during WWII. (Not quite as dangerous or heroic as it may sound--he was doing medical accounts for the Army.) After the war's end, they married, and she moved to California, where he and his parents lived. She'd never been there before, nor had she met his parents, and when they said they were going to come to dinner one night, she wanted to lay out a beautiful table. She went on a walk, thinking idly of picking some wildflowers for dinner, and came across a patch of gloriously red leaves, gleaming in the afternoon sunlight. Delighted, she picked a huge armful and brought the plants triumphantly back to the house to put in a vase--only to be met by my grandfather's horrified face.
Yep. You guessed right. My grandmother had picked a big, beautiful bunch of poison oak.
She didn't know it was poisonous, of course; she just liked the way it looked. Which is fascinating in and of itself. Why are the things that are most dangerous the prettiest? It makes sense, in a twisted way--beautiful things make excellent traps because they draw people in--but it seems such a strong counter to the philosophy we hear most often: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." Interesting stuff to ponder; I'm still processing it.
In any case, the book is an excellent introduction to poisonous plants, and I can't wait to lend it to my botanically-minded best friend. And in addition to its fascinating contents, I have to mention the physical book itself: it was beautifully produced, weighty and solid in that comforting way, and the etchings and illustrations that accompany the stories are absolutely gorgeous. It even has a ribbon bookmark! Everyone in the office was really impressed with the appearance and feel of it--I saw more than one person stroking over the cover.
(Okay, fine, maybe that was just me, but I'm going to pretend other people did it too, to make it less embarrassing. *grin*)