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How does your garden grow? Lethally?

April 29, 2009 | 11:49 am

Wickedplants

In 399 BC, Socrates suffered punishment by death by drinking a tea of poison hemlock. Over the years, hemlock has gotten no less poisonous, although it appears perfectly innocent -- pictured, above, its leaves resemble parsley and flowers, Queen Anne's lace. Now poison hemlock finds a place in the pages of "Wicked Plants" by Amy Stewart, along with coca, the betel nut, the strychnine tree, ratbane, the opium poppy and killer algae. "I confess that I am enchanted by the plant kingdom's criminal element," she writes.

I love a good villain, whether it is an enormous specimen of Euphotbia tiucalli, the pencil cactus with corrosive sap that raises welts on the skin, on display at a garden show, or the hallucinatory moonflower, Datura intoxia, blooming in the desert. There is something beguiling about sharing their dark little secrets. And these secrets don't just lurk in a remote jungle. They're in our own backyards.

Stewart told our Home & Garden section that Southern California's most common wicked plant is oleander, a quick-growing shrub with attractive white or pink flowers that is often used in landscaping. It's accidentally killed children, she says, and is, sadly, commonly used by suicidal nursing home patients.

But for all the death and destruction in the book, it's a lot of fun. There are lots of old-style etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribs accompanying Stewart's encyclopedia-like entries, which include historical cases of death, poisoning and experimentation. More than once -- more than you'd think healthy -- curious doctors have given themselves minor doses of lethal plants to chronicle their effects.

And the experimentation hasn't stopped there. The book includes plants like peyote and mushrooms that are wicked enough to alter your reality but wouldn't really hurt you.

From May 31 to Sept. 5, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden will feature the exhibition Wicked Plants: Shedding a Dark Light on Suspicious Species, based on Stewart's book. Tonight, she'll be in Pasadena at Vroman's Bookstore (with her new poison case, maybe), talking about the plants she loves, covets and fears, including the most deadly plant of all -- tobacco.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: Briony Morrow-Cribs

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