Botanical Curses and Poisons by Fez Inkwright
This is a beautiful book in many senses. Physically it is a good looking hardback book, its contents are arranged alphabetically within, and there are line drawings throughout the text. Subtitled “The Shadow-Lives of Plants”, this book tells of the plants who through legend, folklore or common tales have killed or injured people or animals, that have played a negative role in stories from various cultures and traditions. It covers the exotic plants that are rarely found, right through to plants that are encountered every day in Britain; the Strangler Fig as well as tomatoes and potatoes. This is not a handbook of poisonous plants – it is “written solely for informational and entertainment purposes…not intended as a source of medical advice”. It takes a loose view of the term “poisonous” as not only fatal, but also meaning toxic by way of uncomfortable symptoms. It details how many plants, if treated in certain ways, can cause hallucinations or damage to the mind. It details how people have used various parts of plants for various uses, both innocent such as dyes, as well as the evil motives of jealousy, greed or misplaced love. This is a well researched book which has a wealth of sources and quotes well beyond plant descriptions. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book.
The book opens with an Introduction which defines the way plants are not always “friends” to us, marked out in plays such as Romeo and Juliet, as well as legends dating back to the Greeks and earlier. The next section is a “History of Poisoning” ranging from Socrates’ famous end to historical figures notorious for their poisoning activities. The next section is titled “Of Wise Women and Witches”, which looks at the way that women who use plants and herbs have been welcomed when they are seen to cure, but condemned when things have gone wrong, or other forces have operated against women who are viewed with suspicion. There are ointments which make those who use it believe they fly or fight battles, which have remarkable effects on those who misuse them. The thin line between the benefits and dangers of plants is examined in the section “To Cure and to Kill”, which points how the correct dosage of certain plants have had great benefits, such as anaesthetics, but have proved fatally dangerous if not used correctly. At the back of the book there is a useful index which allows individual plants to be found. A detailed and no doubt inspiring Bibliography and Further Reading section is both comprehensive and extensive.
The bulk of the book is taken up with an A to Z of Plants which looks through many plants. This is not a list of facts, descriptions and symptoms connected with each plant, but a short article about the plant, where it was to be found, its rarity or otherwise, and the effects of being exposed to it in any way. The bulk of each piece will be about the history of the plant, the people who used or feared it, the facts about whether it has led to deaths or poisonings. It uses a multitude of sources, such folklore, greek legends, and a diverse range of literary references.These are carefully shown in footnotes and listed in the bibliography, and make this an inspiring book. The line drawings that accompanies the text suggest the plants, but are not definitive. They undoubtedly add to the appeal of the book, and make it an attractive prospect.
Overall this is an extremely well presented book which can be both dipped into as well as read. I imagine it would be a useful book for informing other writing, as well as the starting point for more research with its extensive reading list and bibliography.