Wicked Plants Book Review (Video with Amy Stewart) Plus a Look Inside the Author’s Wicked Plants Garden

I’m a huge fan of Amy Stewart, and I’ve read everything she’s written, including her bimonthly column in our local newspaper and her writing at Garden Rant, so I was thrilled when I heard about her latest book, Wicked Plants.

I’m a professional gardener and a total plant geek, so reading all about the wicked deeds of the plants I know and love (and learning some new ones as well!) was a blast. But you don’t have to know or even care much about plants to enjoy this book.

Amy blends the human stories and the plant details with such humor and depth that even the black-thumbed among us will enjoy reading. As she says, “I looked for plants that had an interesting backstory. There had to be a victim – a body count.”

She goes on, “These are plants you do not want to meet in a dark alley.” Indeed not. When I read about Mussolini’s guys chasing Communists down the streets with bottles of castor oil, a laxative made from the beautiful but deadly Castor Bean, I just howled with laughter. Earlier, I’d read with bated breath how the KGB injected a tiny pellet of ricin, from the same plant, into Communist defectors to murder them. I think I’d prefer being chased by the Fascists!

The book itself is gorgeously done, with hand-drawn copper etchings of the plants, brown detailing on the pages which makes it look deliciously ancient, and one of those cool ribbon bookmarks. It would make a great gift book, and indeed, I’ve already bought three copies to give to friends – it’s just that nice of a book.

I’m lucky enough to live locally to Amy Stewart, and she invited me to do a video review of the book in her Wicked Plants-inspired poison garden. In the video, Amy introduces us to a few of the botanical miscreants she writes about. Check it out!

You may have seen Amy’s poison garden featured in the New York Times, with the small plants just coming out of winter dormancy and starting their growth for the season. I visited a couple months later to see the progress:

Cocoa hulls used as mulch, since it's poisonous to dogs

This was a spring picture of the wickedest plant in the world, if you take body count as the deciding factor.

You can also see one of the coolest plant markers ever, which Amy made herself out of cement. This one bears the victim’s name instead of the plant’s!

A couple months later, that same wicked plant. Can you guess what it is?

The wickedest plant in the world, Tobacco

Yup, tobacco! Amy shares a story of standing in a tobacco field, touching the plants, and becoming overwhelmingly woozy from just the residue on the leaves!

Murder, California Style, book art with Digitalis accent

Amy’s husband Scott owns an antiquarian bookstore in Eureka, CA, and when he was tossing some unsalvageable, mildewed books, Amy remembered seeing an artist who had planted books in the soil, then dug them up many months later to see how they evolved. Many had grown plants, mosses, and warped in interesting and beautiful ways.

She took the books with the wickedest titles and planted them in her own garden to see what would happen. When planting, one book happened to fall open to a gruesome scene – someone had been poisoned with Digitalis (flowers shown above!).

Black Elderberry (ornamental, not berrying) with Absinthe plant (Artemisia)

This is an ornamental elderberry with lovely goth-y black foliage, next to a delicious-smelling Artemisia – the Absinthe plant! I got to try (the now legal) Absinthe at one of Amy’s readings at a local bookstore, and it was an eye-opener for sure! Tasted like pure alcohol with a bit of licorice and complexity to it. Phew!

A skull sits atop a dresser, with an old, wicked book

This old desk features what I think is a Solanum (Deadly Nightshade), growing out of its drawer.

Possibly a Solanum growing out of the dresser drawers

The hands reaching out of the top drawers add a deliciously creepy touch, I think!

Arum smells like the victims!

And lastly, my favorite plant in the wicked garden – Arum! It’s settled in next to the Absinthe and a very poisonous Daphne. Want to see a closeup?

Arum, closer

This is the one element in the poison garden that is better experienced by photo. Arum flowers smell shockingly foul – like rotting meat. I love the deep burgundy color and the curving leaves, but – not sure I’m rushing to plant one in my garden!!

Hope you guys enjoyed the Poison Garden tour – if you haven’t read Wicked Plants yet, be sure and pick up your copy today – it’s well worth it and would make an excellent gift for any brooding teens you may know who wear too much black and act all serious – might lighten them up a bit!

If you enjoyed this article, click to read more:

Wicked Plants: The Movie

The Last Bookstore in America by Amy Stewart: Book Review

Lessons From the Road: in which your author learns that even everyday plants have their wicked side, by Amy Stewart in the North Coast Journal


6 responses to “Wicked Plants Book Review (Video with Amy Stewart) Plus a Look Inside the Author’s Wicked Plants Garden”

  1. What a delightful post. Thanks for sharing those poison garden photos. Though the cultivation,marketing, and use of tobacco certainly are wicked, dagnabbit, I love Nicotiana! I also love my castor bean. I’m ashamed to say that even though I won Wicked Plants from you, I haven’t read it yet. I did leaf through and the illustrations are great, and I like that each plant gets its own short story. I can’t remember the last time I read a whole book, I just get so distracted, so I like that this is a lot of short stories, really.
    .-= Monica the Garden Faerie´s last blog ..Native Plant Walk =-.

  2. Absolutely loved this post. I think you captured the book and the garden beautifully. I know you’ve sold it to me!

    I have an attraction to growing poisonous plants. My garden is packed with them and most are absolutely gorgeous.

    I look forward to following your blog!

    .-= Ryan´s last blog ..The Bath Bouquet =-.

  3. I’m up on a lot of poisonous plants, but the castor bean story was new to me! As a bibliophile, burying books seems almost sacriligious, but on the other hand there are some I can think of who would grace the world better as warpy mossed artifacts.

    The color and leaf textures in Amy Stewart’s garden are the things that really send me, although I do think poisonous plants need their place and I’m glad she’s championing them. (I think I’ll pass on that arum, too, though it does look incredibly cool. My garden’s small.)
    .-= Pomona Belvedere´s last blog ..Hymenocallis X festalis (Peruvian daffodils; Ismene; Summer daffodils) =-.

  4. Hey Monica! You’ll love Wicked when you finally dig in – would make excellent bathroom or in-the-car reading for when you find yourself with a moment here or there.

    Hi Ryan! Sounds from twitter like you picked up your own copy – that’s wonderful! I’m looking forward to following your blog, too – your bath bouquet idea is a lovely one.

    Nice to see you here, Miss Sarah!! Maybe when you move to Cali I can help you choose some easy-do-ers to enjoy getting started with. No cactus, hey? 🙂

    Hi Pomona! I can think of a few books better off in the ground as well. Dr Laura to start (sorry Dr Laura fans)! All the books Amy buried were very unsalvageable – heavily mildewed and warped. This is their second life.

    Hey InterLeafer (sorry Laura, I can’t think of you any other way!). I think From the Ground Up was my surprise favorite of Amy’s. I listen to people talk about their gardens all day as a job, so I figured in the evening, I’d want to read something a bit different to read about. But From the Ground Up really re-awoke that awe and wonder in the process of gardening that I’d felt as a beginner, and I couldn’t put it down – it was a beautiful book and made me feel great to read. I’m going to review that here soon.