Debra Prinzing

Get the Email Newsletter!

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:


Gifts for Gardeners: Hoe, HOE, Hoe

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Garden writers often dread the perennial assignment that happens around August or early September when an editor summons us to say: “It’s time to do that round-up story on holiday gifts for gardeners.” 

For as many of these puff-pieces that I’ve written over the years, I guess people really do read them. I’ve witnessed first-hand how such stories influence the behavior of desperate gift-givers with the calendar racing toward December 25th.

One year, when I was “The Weedy Reader” newsletter editor at Emery’s Garden nursery in Lynnwood, Washington, we sent around gift ideas to local columnists. We had this rather funny non-gardening item ~ a paper-mache pig with wings. It was about the size of a piggy bank. We had them hanging from the ceiling of the cashier-checkout area and someone (probably Amy Tullis, our genius marketing manager), put up a sign that read: When Pigs Fly.

The famous and widely-followed Ann Lovejoy picked up on the pun and mentioned Emery’s pig-figures in her column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. We couldn’t keep those pigs in stock. They really did fly — straight out the door! There were piles of fine hand tools, lovely leather gloves, and beautiful plant books. But everyone wanted a pig. Who knew?

This year, a few really good ideas just plopped in my lap from the gift gods. I’m sending up thanks to them this very moment (I should actually call this unseen, heavenly entity “The Patron Saint of Deadlines,” because he/she has so often appeared just when I so desperately need an idea while on deadline!).

I met a few people at the Garden Writers Association annual symposium who suggested ideas; I received some other tips unsolicited by mail. Editors and their market scouts even did some of the legwork for me. Yay! Oh, I did find one great gift all by myself – an ExOfficio hat that I purchased at SeaTac Airport. It’s probably designed for people who go fly-fishing, but I think it’s an excellent gardening hat.

I wrote two December stories – one for Seattle Homes & Lifestyles and one for 805 Living Magazine. Isn’t that funny? The former periodical is published in my prior environs – Seattle; the latter is circulated here in Southern Cal’s Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, where I now reside. Is it possible to be contributing garden editor for both? I really do have two lives!

Before I run Debra’s list of great gifts for gardeners, I want to tell you what I’m giving my gardening pals this year. The idea is part of the Alternative Christmas Market that my parish is hosting this Sunday. I’ve already perused the fine catalog of gifts with meaning for worthy causes in Haiti, Kenya, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey and our own country.

One program in the catalog really stood out to me. It’s run by FLORESTA, a non-profit Christian agency that “plants hope” in communities through environmental restoration, community development, micro lending and more. 

Floresta’s programs enable farmers to make the best possible use of the resources available to them. Programs teach agroforestry, reforestation, soil conservation, and a host of other sustainable techniques. One way to support Floresta includes funding the planting of trees to restore deforested areas ($10 pays for an orchard of 10 trees; $100 pays for a forest of 100 trees). You can also finance a small farm loan ($25 pays for a vegetable garden; $100 pays for an agroforestry loan). I like the idea of giving a gift on behalf of one of my gardening friends to truly help a person in need change their life for the better. Imagine: giving up lattes for a week could transform the lives of a family in need? Gardening is truly a powerful source for change around the world




Monday, August 4th, 2008

A true-blue grouping (left) in Sunset Magazine’s test gardens; Silvery succulents (right) thrive in ice-blue containers for a satisfying grouping at Longwood Gardens, 2006

Ever since I relocated from Seattle to Los Angeles, nearly 2 years ago now, I have relied more than ever on container gardening. With a confounding, on-again, off-again irrigation system that will cost the equivalent of a year’s grad-school tuition to completely repair, and with rock-hard soil that endured years smothered by the previous owner’s idea of weed control (black plastic sheeting covered with red lava rock “mulch”), I’m desperate to grow plants in spite of unwelcome conditions.

But where? And how to keep them alive when it’s too hot and dry for anything but succulents to look good?

The answer is a container garden. Gardening in a container is like one-stop shopping. Maybe we should call it “one-stop gardening.” Here are some of the best reasons for gardening in pots:

Why grow a container garden?         

  •  Move plants and architectural interest above the ground’s surface:  You’ll enjoy beauty closer to eye level, as in this cool vintage vessel that caught my eye at Chanticleer Gardens in Pennsylvania (2006).




Edible and Accessible: Lettuces and herbs thrive in pots, like this over-sized terracotta “strawberry” pot at right – measuring 48 inches tall, created several years ago by the designers at Emery’s Garden in Lynnwood, Wash.! At left, ornamental peppers and kale in a pot at Longwood Gardens are food for the eyes.



Define a focal point: Signal the entrance to the garden, such as with these two glossy Asian pots that contain lush golden hostas. Mounted on pillars, they announce: “Come this way,” a way that’s made more enjoyable because this portal leads to the gardens of David Lewis and George Little, Bainbridge Island artists.



Provide a natural perimeter: Anywhere in the garden, such as at the edge of a deck or patio, pots can act as a verdant “wall” to contain, deter, protect or enclose. I particularly enjoy seeing three identical pots, lined up as a formal barrier – it’s plant-filled architectural interest. Here, at the edge of Peter Norris Home & Garden’s parking lot, these giant iron urns hold gold-streaked phormiums (left). A trio of fern-filled pots defines the edge of a formal planting scheme at Robert Dash’s Madoo Garden (right).