I was fascinated by Amy Stewart's new book, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities, which the Red Room staff picked as its first book club read. It's an entertaining compendium of plants that range from mildly irritating to truly awful that decimate whole societies. The etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs and the illustrations by Jonathon Rosen really added to my enjoyment of the book, and I can only wish there were even more. (I like that both graphic artists have plant names, as well.)
My main "takeaway" from the book shifted as we were talking about it this morning. I came in thinking how much more hazardous the world was a hundred years ago or more— most of the anecdotes about accidental poisonings or warfare using plants listed in the book seemed to me to come from a time before antidotes, mass-produced guidebooks, or the internet. As Michele Chaboudy talked about producing a small crop of tobacco when she was growing up, I realized that harmful plants have actually done far worse damage, on a much grander scale, since industrialization made the opium poppy, coca, cannabis, and tobacco into such important cash crops. Unlike the death camas or the suicide tree, we cultivate these modern horrors in such mass quantities on purpose, killing ourselves and the environment with a speed and an efficiency that makes curare and strychnine look pretty toothless.
In contrast to, say, Michael Pollan, who woke up so many of us about corn in The Omnivore's Dilemma, Stewart doesn't hit you over the head with this point (except maybe with tobacco). If you're of a certain lightly macabre mindset, her stories are quite entertaining. I know I enjoyed some mild Schadenfreude thinking about a world where it can be hazardous just to walk in the wrong part of the forest. Now that we've come a long way in mitigating the small-scale, mostly accidental damage from the botanical world, though, it's sobering to think of the much larger harm we're doing to ourselves now with plants.