Debra Prinzing

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A tale of a Wicked Plant (aka “The Case of the Poisonous Monkshood”)

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

In preparing for a phone interview with prolific, bestselling author Amy Stewart to discuss her new book, Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities, I came across a dog-eared manila folder in my office file drawer. Its label read “Emery’s Garden Monkshood.”

”]Autumn Monkshood - beautiful and poisonous [photo from Valleybrook Gardens Ltd.]And immediately, I recalled my own brush with a “Wicked Plant.” Before sharing my Q&A with Amy, I will indulge in the tale of Autumn Monkshood, aka Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’.

In the late 1990s, I worked for a wonderful specialty nursery in Lynnwood, Washington, called Emery’s Garden. I had recently left business writing and a nonprofit communications gig to embark on my “garden writer” journey. Lucky for me, the people at Emery’s took me in and our relationship there flourished. I wrote and edited “The Weedy Reader,” our quarterly newsletter. I planned and produced our educational program and special events. I basically learned the horticulture business, thanks to Emery Rhodes, Marlis Korber and Amy Tullis.

After I left Emery’s in 2000 (that’s when I joined the team of The Herald’s “Home & Garden” section in nearby Everett), I stayed in close touch with my Emery’s pals. One day, in April 2001, I received a panicked phone call from Marlis, the nursery’s general manager.

Turns out, a customer purchasing perennials pointed out some odd tags on the 6-inch containers of Monkshood (Aconitum). The tag read: “All parts of this plant are tasty in soup.” The shopper had filled one of Emery’s carts with her two toddlers and three pots of the mislabeled (and wicked) perennial. “I thought this stuff was poisonous,” she said to our sales associate. “But this label says it’s edible.”

aconitum-story2aconitum010Needless to say, a check in Sunset Western Garden Book revealed the exact opposite to be true. Under “Aconitum,” Sunset warns: “All parts are poisonous if ingested.”

What resulted was a mini-international scandal and media frenzy. The common Monkshood, which is a beautiful, tall violet-blue ingredient in the cottage border, is NOT a tasty ingredient for soup or stews. Instead, it’s lethal.

The ensuing drama played out as you might expect. I got to play the role of Crisis-PR consultant while Emery’s pulled all the mislabeled plants, contacted the grower (a Canadian nursery), and soon discovered that the label mishap had been a stupid prank pulled by one of the grower’s employees! Within 48 hours, we were visited by the FDA; the Canadian authorities got involved; the plant recall went out over the wires; television, radio and print outlets picked up on the story and came to report on the scare.

In the end, it was a bit of a wake up call for Emery’s (and possibly other local nurseries) about the importance of using proper signage and labeling of toxic ornamental and landscaping plants. But I wonder, did anything really change? It certainly elevated consciousness at one nursery, at least for one season.

wicked012Now, however, with the advent of Wicked Plants, the evils of ingesting the flowers, stems or leaves of Aconitum are coming back to haunt me. The perennial is, in fact, the very first entry of Amy Stewart’s charming and horrifying new effort, published earlier this month. Amy writes:

In 1856 a dinner party in the Scottish village of Dingwall came to a horrible end. A servant had been sent outside to dig up horseradish, but instead he uprooted aconinte, also called monkshood. The cook, failing to recognize that she had been handed the wrong ingredient, grated it into a sauce for the roast and promptly killed two priests who were guests at the dinner. Other guests were sickened but survived.

Her scary narrative explains where the perennial grows and what to look out for (gardeners should wear gloves anytime they go near aconitum, Amy advises). The page is labeled “Deadly.”

Wicked Plants, is a compendium of horrifying stories and historical facts of the botanical world. If you have any question as to the deadly, illegal, intoxicating, dangerous, destructive, painful and offensive traits of the trees, shrubs, perennials and herbs growing on our planet, you’ll want to peruse this powerful little volume.

Between the pages of Amy’s 5-3/4 x 7-1/4 inch, 235-page book, which is bound in the same sickly green worn on the face of the witch Elphaba in the musical “Wicked,” are tales of death, destruction, war and more. I recently had a chance to chat by phone with Amy, and here is part of our conversation: