On Wicked Plants and Other Brief Thoughts

Wicked Plants

I’ve been kind of into poisons for a while. (And by ‘kind of’ I mean ‘read every book on the subject I could find in the name of ‘research’ for my ‘novel.’) Yesterday I hauled my unsociable, city-phobic self to San Francisco to attend a talk at the Conservatory of Flowers called The Fine Art of Poisoning. It was accompanied by the Wicked Plants exhibit (open until Oct. 30), which is a garden full of naughty plants.

I went with my friend Emily, a science illustrator who is outrageously talented at talking her way into things. She told the director that we would draw/write about the event, so we were able to go in between the time the Conservatory was formally closed to the public and the beginning of the event. Solitude in exchange for a blog post? Score.

Inside it was lush, humid, green, and luminously silent after the roar of the city. We were the only people around. We admired spiky lily pads, silvery striped leaves, carnivorous pitcher plants, and tree ferns.  We stroked velvety leaves and breathed in the rich, loamy smells of plant life and death.

The poison garden itself was a bit disappointing. Although there were a few exotics, most of the plants looked very familiar. Foxgloves, diffenbachia, lily pads, lantana, ivy. Emily chose to draw some snakey-looking pitcher plants with hungry red mouths. I’m usually too intimidated by Emily’s mad art skills (check out her science illustration blog to see her pitcher plants — they should be up soon) to draw with her, but I settled on some more mundane foxgloves. I enjoy sketching but rarely make the time for it. Time seems to pass differently when I’m drawing. The afternoon light faded while we sketched, and the only reason I noticed was that the shadows on the flowers changed.

Although I was originally hoping for more from the exhibit, I’ve realized that one of its points is that poisonous plants are so very common that they’re literally under our noses the whole time. We think they’re boring because we’ve stopped looking at them, learning about them, asking questions about them. Or because we’ve never started.

Sometimes it seems like we’ve fallen out of love with our planet. Maybe we’ve just stopped really looking at it. In the past few weeks, I’ve been busy tree-watching. The trees in my neighborhood are not particularly interesting and striking trees, but the more I look at them, the more I learn about how they live and why they matter. All these quiet, slow activities — drawing, tree-watching — remind me of one thing: pay enough attention, and it’s impossible to be bored on this planet.

I’ll be back soon with a virtual tree walk through my neighborhood. I hope you’re all well this autumn.


12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by smallftprints on 10/20/2011 at 16:04

    Oh nice … and I love your sketch!! A year or so ago I took a botanical watercolor class. The instructor is a plant expert and combined his love of nature with his love of art. It was such a fun class … I’m terrible at the artistic side of it but I adored how slowing down and really looking made me see things that I hadn’t ever seen. Every small flower … even a petal … contains intricate designs and patterns. It’s just brilliant and so beautiful! You’re right … when we take the time, it is impossible to get bored … there’s so much to SEE.


    • Thanks, Smallfootprints! That sounds like it was a good class. I have watercolors but have never learned what to do with them. I love details, so I appreciate (even if I can’t always duplicate) fine veins, unexpected whorls, and other patterns. I’m surprised by how much the internal pulp structure of a slice of orange looks like insect wings and leaf veins! I don’t travel much and am a terrible homebody, but I’ve realized that my small world is as big as my capacity to be interested in it. 🙂


  2. What a beautiful post. “Sometimes it seems like we’ve fallen out of love with our planet. Maybe we’ve just stopped really looking at it.” That is sadly soooo true. I had this total a-ha moment along those lines once. I’m not sure I’m going to be capable of describing the magnitude of the impact that this silly event had on me, but I’ll try…

    My Ex and I were driving down to Mexico for a vacation. Along the way we stayed with some friends of his in Phoenix. They had both a lemon tree and a grapefruit tree in their backyard. In the morning his friend handed me this strange little cage on a stick device and asked me to go out and pick some grapefruit for breakfast. So I’m standing there under the tree… and I pick these grapefruit… and they’re like the most beautiful, sweet and delicious ruby reds that I had ever tasted. Suddenly it hit me that the food in the grocery store really, actually, truly DOES come from plants.

    I have absolutely NO idea why this was such a revelation. I mean, clearly, I knew that fruit comes from trees, and as a kid my Dad always had a garden, but the only fruit I’d ever seen in it’s native habitat were horrible little sour crab apples or concord grapes that were so tart they’d make you wince, so somehow I got the idea that you couldn’t grow the “real” stuff on your own.

    But there they were… these amazing grapefruit… that tasted even better than the ones in the grocery store, and they were just growing on this tree. I was totally blown away. It was like some little part of my brain sort of thought it was all a scam or something… since I’d never seen the things growing, I couldn’t actually believe that it could be that simple. Some part of me still sort of imagined a grapefruit factory spitting them out or something.

    Anyhow, that’s when I became totally obsessed with the idea of growing my own food. It took me several years to get there, but I still get totally giddy with the idea that this stuff just grows out in my garden for free.

    Anyhow… speaking of bizarre plants. Some friends of mine used to have this weird plant that had evolved to be pollinated by flies instead of bees. So it had these flowers that, instead of smelling sweet and perfume like, smelled like shit… literally! At some point the novelty of owing a fly-pollinated plant was overshadowed by the … um… inconvenience of having a house that smelled like shit every time the thing bloomed, so they got rid of it. Don’t know if it was poisonous or not, but it was sure weird… er… I mean… diverse!


    • Hi EcoCatLady,
      Enlightenment with grapefruit! Sounds like a good story to me. My mother loves fruit trees, so I grew up nibbling on a mostly edible garden — raspberries at the ends of my fingertips, apricots and plums still warm from the tree. I also tried many things that weren’t technically edible and a few that were actually toxic (as I found out later). Luckily, I never ate anything in sufficient quantities to become ill. I haven’t really caught the gardening bug yet, though. Part of it is that I don’t have any outdoor space, and the other part of it is that I’m lazy and have too many other interests competing for my time and attention. I’d like to think I’ll get there eventually. The idea of a grapefruit factory makes me smile. Thanks for sharing!

      I’ve heard that some plants pollinated by flies smell like carrion. Not sure if this would be better or worse than excrement-scented flowers! Cocoa trees, on the other hand, are pollinated by midges. I think we used to have a much greater variety of pollinators, including bats and all kinds of insects, before we plowed our way through ecosystems and habitats to the extent that we now have to truck bees around. Oh, humans…


  3. “All these quiet, slow activities — drawing, tree-watching — remind me of one thing: pay enough attention, and it’s impossible to be bored on this planet.”

    —Oh yes, I totally agree.

    And yet there is good reason to still know about poison plants. What if they grow in our backyards and get nibbled on by our children or our pets? Not unheard of.

    We have gotten used to being able to hike in most parts of the country without being attacked by wild animals, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t still happen.

    I’m glad some of us, a great many actually, are trying to get back to nature. It may be the only thing that could save us – the process of re-learning how to care about the ecosystem that sustains us all.


    • Hello Moonbeams and Eco-Dreams,
      It’s definitely a good idea to know what you’re growing, although the good news is that there are very few plant fatalities (you typically have to eat a lot more than just one berry or leaf, and the toxic ones tend to be bitter). Still, I think it’s important not to mistake ‘natural’ for ‘beneficial’ and to maintain a certain respect for the other things we share the planet with.

      There are lots of reasons to adopt more environmentally friendly lifestyles, but one of the best — and the one that keeps me going when rationalism assures me we’re screwed — is to be in love with the wonders of our world. Now…how to share that sense of awe?


  4. Thank you for the wonderful post. I really enjoy your writing style and I must admit I never even think about poisonous plants, I only think about medicinal and food plants. How narrow minded; I think it’s important to appreciate everything we have and how it adds to nature’s diversity.

    Also I think it’s so true that we don’t fully see things that are femiliar. I remember learning something like this is my AS level psychology class… Our brains are constantly being filled up with sensory infomation from our sensory organs, and there’s just too much to pay attention too so only new and ‘important’ data is allowed into our short term memories. Or something like that.

    Thank you EcoCatLady for sharing your story about the grapefruit (:


    • Hi Tegan,
      One of the interesting points made during the lecture on poisonous plants was that the difference between a therapeutic dose and a lethal dose of a plant was often very small. Foxgloves are considered a medicinal plant in that they go into a popular heart medication that my grandmother takes, but too many, and they can be deadly. The lines between food, medicine, and poison are sometimes very fine. Even lots of our food plants are either closely related to poisonous plants (like nightshades) or still contain toxins that need to be cooked out (kidney beans) or avoided (apricot pits, apple seeds). I’m fascinated!

      I suspect that, as a culture, we suffer from sensory overload from the media we’re constantly exposed to. I wonder if it distracts us from slower, less flashy forms of sensory exploration or makes us less able to appreciate detail and subtlety. I just read a nature essay on the subject of poking around — looking under twigs, tossing winged seeds into the air, skipping stones — and felt sad that there wasn’t more of it in my life.


  5. Welcome back! Hope your vacation from blogging was relaxing.

    We are definitely disconnected from the portions of nature we deem irrelevant. It’s hard enough for people to understand that our food comes from intensive agriculture and is shipped around the world, let alone that other plants exist and truly matter for biodiversity and the continued existence of our species!!! Great post.


    • Hi Andrea!
      Yeah, we tend to see the world only for its immediate relevance or usefulness to our lives. Even knowing there’s a bigger picture out there doesn’t necessarily make seeing it or acting accordingly easier. One of the tree books I was reading emphasized that the way to make people care about the environment was to help them find ways to fall in love with it, and I agree. For all the rational, money saving, self-sustaining reasons to live sustainably, what really motivates me is my awe that this planet turned out so cool and desire to keep it that way.


  6. What a beautiful post Jennifer. Thanks for sharing your sketch-you are very talented. My stick figures don’t compare! I agree with you wholeheartedly-sometimes we look at something so frequently that we almost see right through it and miss the true beauty.


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