Stewart, Amy illus. by Briony Morrow-Cribbs (etchings) & Jonathon Rosen (drawings). Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities. Algonquin, 2009. ISBN 978-1565126831 272 pp. $18.95
Amy Stewart, a self-proclaimed gardener and writer (not a botanist or scientist) presents, in alphabetical order, mini-biographies of botanical villains, weaving in pop culture, mythology, history, folklore, medicine, and law with botanical and biological information. The most captivating entries are the topical ones that were interspersed in the encyclopedic style, themed with “houseplants,” “ragweeds,” and “the devil’s bartender,” all about more common plants.
While I love the concept, I was really bothered by the organization (maybe it’s the librarian in me!). I would have found this more engaging arranged by the author’s creative categories of Illegal, Painful, Intoxicating, Deadly…or even by plant family. There is no index, so the reader cannot get a list of all the nightshades, or search by a particular toxin.
The writing is fine–Stewart’s ability to pack in a lot of really fascinating information in a small amount of space reminds me a little of Kathleen Krull, but less engaging. A glossary is lacking, along with source notes; the bibliographies are limited to books. A list of poisonous gardens is a whimsical touch.
From the poison green cover to the satiny maize colored bookmark, it’s a nice package – good size, soft pages, consistent style, older fonts to give a grimoire sense to the volume. I love the botanical etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, but these are much more successful than the images by Jonathan Rosen that are illustrative of the stories Stewart relays; the two styles didn’t mesh for me.
All in all, Wicked Plants has a great hook, a catchy title and is a pretty package, but this doesn’t feel like a book to read straight through. It assumes some knowledge about plants (like what an angiosperm is) because it’s really directed at “gardeners & nature lovers.” The A-Z organization make it feel more like a reference book than it is. The writing is good, but not over the top great. Those with morbid curiosity will be drawn to it (I already know who I’m going to pass my copy along to!) and I envision some students using this as a secondary resource for a report for Health or Biology, but the casualness of the book creates reservations for me; I like sources cited.