Books I like browsing – ‘Wicked Plants’
One neat book on my herbs shelf is Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, a compendium of plants that can do bad things to good people (and bad people as well). This illustrated book is not only fun to read, but very handy for an author who often mentions native plants in his fiction.
My wife an I are among those infected with a reference books addiction since both of us have been known to start reading dictionaries and encyclopedias when words and articles catch our attention while we’re looking up something else.
With Stewart’s book, for example, you might be looking up a poisonous plant you’re already aware of and stumble across something like white snake root. Most people don’t know the name, even though it sounds nasty.
I refer to white snake root in my novel “Conjure Woman’s Cat” since it’s collected and used in various hoodoo applications. It’s also dangerous via our food supply, a fact you know in spades if you have dairy cattle or dairy goats.
This close relative of boneset was responsible for the deaths of a fair number of people during the 19th century because cattle and goats grazed on it, resulting in the toxin tremetol getting into the milk. As the book notes, the disease called “milk sickness” was “so common that the names Milk Sick Ridge, Milk Sick Cove, and Milk Sick Holler are still attached to places in the South where the disease was rampant.”
Abraham Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks died of milk contaminated by white snake root. The plant’s association with milk sickness wasn’t clearly accepted until the 1920s even though Dr. Anna Bixby figured it out in 1834 when “women doctors were not taken seriously.”
Reference books are a fact of life for authors. I discovered when I was growing up that my folks’ set of encyclopedias could on some days be as addictive as a novel. This little book by Amy Stewart is, however, a gold mine for authors who write stories about protagonists who want to hurt their enemies and some members of their families.