Green Neighbors: Good Intentions and Wicked Plants

By Ron Sullivan
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 07:07:00 PM
Lovely to look at, stupid to ingest. Brugmansia hybrid flower.
Ron Sullivan
Lovely to look at, stupid to ingest. Brugmansia hybrid flower. credit.

Only ignorance! only ignorance? How can you talk about only ignorance Don’t you know that it is the is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness?—and which does the most mischief heaven only knows.” 

We all have our literary influences, and one of my earliest outside Mad magazine was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. The above was uttered by John Manly when a new groom had sickened the horse (that rarest of equine breeds, the Three-Gaited First-Person Narrator) by giving him cold water when he was still “hot” from a long run. I must’ve been a geek from birth; that sentiment rang all my chimes.  

As we all remember being ignorant of something once upon a time (and when we’re being wise also remember that we still are) it’s sometimes hard to deal with. Anger followed by empathy followed by more anger, usually. And then wondering if we’d even trust the perpetrator to help clean up the mess.  

Ignorance and well-intentioned energy can make a particularly toxic concoction. When Joe and I volunteered for a few years at a garden in Berkeley, the bane of our existence wasn’t hard work, the failing irrigation system, or the ivy that threatened to devour the neighborhood. It was the repeated loss of plants to the next wave of volunteers. 

Recently a well-equipped and energetic crew of volunteers from a local corporation spent Earth Day “weeding”-ripping out-yet another butterfly garden in south Berkeley, not far from the vandalized traffic circle I wrote about two weeks ago.  

They tore out most of the low-growing host plants and nectar plants around the schoolyard. Armed with power trimmers, surely a tool of the Devil, they trimmed several tall fennel clusters into poodleballs. This would have been witty except that it also destroyed all the anise swallowtail eggs that had been laid there on the outer tips of the foliage. 

Then they neatened the place up with a nice thick fragrant mulch of cedar chips, the traditional moth repellant.  

If you’re now in a wicked mood (as I am), you’ve timed it well. Amy Stewart (author of The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievments of Earthworms; From the Ground Up; and Flower Confidential) has written a bit of fun summer reading, Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities.  

This isn’t a technical manual; you won’t learn how to poison some deserving individual. You will learn that lots of common plants are toxic in interesting ways, or personally obnoxious, or destructive to the rest of the world. There are a few familiar villains, like the locally common weed poison hemlock, which some folks seem to think is a native or at least something suitable for children to frolic in. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace, or maybe parsley (they’re all relatives) but has purple blotches on its stems. It’s the stuff that killed Socrates.  

Stewart will be reading and signing her book at Mrs. Dalloway’s on Friday June 19, at 7:30 PM. Come and meet her; she’s a kick in person too.  

Just please don’t bring snacks.