Oh, Those Wicked, Wicked Plants: A Conversation with Amy Stewart
Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart might be more accurately described as a brilliant "bestiary," so lively and alive are the rogues, assassins, and ne'er-do-wells of this expertly conceived tome. Just out today, Wicked Plants includes etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs and illustrations by Jonathon Rosen. The featured flora ranges from Khat, which "gun-toting Somalian men stuffed...into their cheeks," racing around Mogadishu "in a jittery high that lasted until late into the night," to Aconite, which "Nazi scientists found useful as an ingredient for poisoned bullets." Stewart includes such cheerily titled sections as "This Houseplant Could be Your Last" and "The Devil's Bartender." Everything about this brilliant, fascinating, and often quite funny hardcover screams buy me, down to the elegant book ribbon and the excellent design. I can't always say I find plants the most interesting of subjects, but Stewart's enthusiasm and her great writing made me an instant fan of hither-to-unknown-to-me plants like Ratbane, Voodoo Lily, and Horse Choke Mayhem Vine (okay, so I made that last one up, but if you read Wicked Plants, you'll soon find that the name wouldn't look at all out of place amongst the real ones..).
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Stewart via email about her book, and about such serious subjects as cage matches between bears and plants. She replied from home, between trips to Los Angeles and Minneapolis. "The book tour is like this--go somewhere for a few days or a week and then go home long enough to do laundry and wave to my husband, and then leave again. I'll be mostly gone through July."
Amazon.com: Are there insects you like because of the plants you've researched? If so, why?
Amy Stewart: Funny you should ask that. I've actually become very interested in insects that 'occupy' plants and go to war over them. Ants, of course, are particularly big on this. They live inside the canes of the rattan plant, and if they sense the plant is under attack, they all mobilize at once and actually shake the entire plant, which must be a real surprise to whoever is trying to cut it down!
Amazon.com: How do you feel about mushrooms?
Amy Stewart: I am now kind of terrified of mushrooms. It's so weird--before I started working on this book, I would order anything on the menu if it came with wild mushrooms. Particularly morels or chanterelles. But now that I seem to catch every poisoning story in the news, I know that eating the wrong mushroom can not only be deadly, it's an awful way to die. People die of liver or kidney failure. Ugh. So now I see wild mushrooms on the menu, and I want to say, "Uh, can I have a word with the person who picked these mushrooms?" I mean, I know that mushroom hunters are really good at what they do, but still! It is possible to make a mistake. It has made me more wary of them, but I love them too much to give them up entirely.
Amazon.com: What's the silliest or least accurate portrayal of a plant you've seen in a movie or novel?
Amy Stewart: Well, I love the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter. I love the idea of an intensely angry, violent tree. But generally, most plants and gardens are portrayed innacurately in the movies. It's like the set desigers can't think of anything to do other than go out and buy some blooming annuals and stick them in the ground surrounded by chipped bark. It drives me crazy. I really admired the very real and messy garden in the movie Seven Pounds. It wasn't a fancy garden, just a small place in Pasadena, but it was clearly a real garden. A real garden in which Will Smith shows up and pulls weeds, that is. Nothing like that's ever happened in my garden, but I'm waiting!
Amazon.com: Why should we care about plants? And why "botanical atrocities" in particular?
Amy Stewart: Well, we should care about plants because it's THE PLANT KINGDOM! Like, you know, there's the animal kingdom, and that's us, and then there's the plant kingdom, and that's where all our food and oxygen comes from. It's actually just a little bit important. It drives me crazy when gardening and botany are treated as a subset of home decorating. As if choosing the right throw pillow or scented candle has anything at all to do with going outside and putting your hands in the dirt--which is, after all, THE PLANET. As you can see, I get a little worked up about this stuff.
And as for botanical atrocities--well, nature has power. Just because something grows in the ground does not make it entirely benign. The natural world is incredibly powerful and mysterious and, frankly, does not always have our best interests at heart. Which is not surprising when you consider the fact that we don't always have the natural world's best interests at heart. There are vines in the jungle that would just as soon kill you as look at you, but you know what? We've wiped out entire species of plants without giving it a second thought. We managed to cut down 95 percent of all the old growth redwoods before we realized maybe that was not such a good idea. It's a wonder the plant kingdom hasn't taken revenge. Yet.
Amazon.com: Is the finished book as a physical object what you'd imagined your head when you started? It's just beautiful.
Amy Stewart: Oh, I know, isn't it amazing? It's the first illustrated book I've ever done. In fact, after I finish this I'm headed over to our bookstore (my husband and I own Eureka Books) for an exhibit of original art from the book. Briony Morrow-Cribbs created these copperplate etchings using a process that is basically 200 years old. I mean, nobody illustrates botanical books like this anymore! Drawing freehand on a plate of copper and then dipping it in acid, and inking the plate and making these etchings--it's incredible! Yeah, the look of the book was very important to me and I love the way it turned out. The art, by the way, will also be on exhibit at Brooklyn Botanic Garden all summer along with a 'Wicked Plants' exhibit throughout the garden.
Amazon.com: Imagine this scenario. You're up against a Kodiak bear. You have the ability to conjure up a six-foot version of any of the plants in your book to help fend it off. Which plant, and why?
Amy Stewart: Hmmm, I'm going to need something fast-acting, so that rules out castor bean, and I guess it also rules out the coyotillo shrub, which is cool because it causes paralysis--but later. So I'm going with curare, a South American vine that can be used on poison arrows. It's actually a muscle relaxant, but it works so fast that it causes birds to fall out of trees. This assumes, of course, that the Whomping Willow is not available...
Also check out Mari Malcolm's Garden Library discussion with Stewart, in which they talk about garden writers, gardening styles, gardening reference books, and a host of other topics germane to the "G" word.