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'Wicked Plants' Creep Through Brooklyn Gardens

Jun 19, 2009 (Morning Edition)

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Things are not as placid and peaceful in the plant kingdom as you might believe. Beyond the flowers, butterflies and vegetables, something dark is lurking in the garden.

In her new book, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, author Amy Stewart focuses on plants that are illegal, dangerous — even deadly.

Stewart says people don't realize that many plants have protective poisons to defend themselves from bugs and animals, including humans. For instance, oleander may have beautiful flowers, but if you ingest enough of it, your heart will stop.

"There's a woman in Southern California who tried to murder her husband with oleander," says Stewart, who has written several books on gardening. She says the woman's plan didn't work because she didn't give him enough. "He landed in the hospital and he survived," she says. "Then she killed him with antifreeze." Stewart says the woman is on death row.

This summer, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is showcasing many of these "evil plants" among its lily ponds and greenhouses. They feature scores of examples of plants that make you sick, make you hallucinate, and a few that can even kill. Though there are no illegal plants, like cannabis, the garden does have some that are dangerous, like jimson weed. It's said that jimson weed, named after Jamestown, made many of the first settlers sick.

As she runs her fingers through a beautiful hedge of yew at the garden, Stewart says the innocent-looking plant is quite poisonous if eaten. She's learned to be careful by wearing gloves. She recalls becoming dizzy one day while wandering through a field of tobacco.

"It was like being covered with nicotine patches," she says. "My heart started racing."

Next to one beautiful tree at the Botanic Garden is a sign with a skull and crossbones. It's poison sumac, and Stewart says the plant changed the life of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park. Wandering through the fields of poison sumac damaged Olmsted's eyesight, causing him to stay out of school for a year — time he spent getting interested in landscape architecture.

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