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Posts Tagged ‘monkshood’

Harrap's Wild Flowers by Simon HarrapHarrap’s Wild Flowers: A Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland, Simon Harrap (Bloomsbury 2013)

The botanist Simon Harrap photographed every plant in this book but for one: the Cornish heath, Erica vagans, on page 399. That’s an impressive achievement. An enviable one too, because he had to combine a lot of expertise with a lot of travelling. On page 70, for example, there are chalk milkwort, Polygala calcarea, and mountain avens, Dryas octopetala. The milkwort is found in southern England and the avens in northern Scotland, as you can see at a glance from the map that accompanies each flower.

The scientific name of the avens means “the eight-petalled wood-nymph”. Botany doesn’t just please the eye and nose: it’s fun for the tongue too, even if you don’t eat anything of what you see. The milkwort and avens please the eye on page 70 and so do the “frothy, creamy-white clusters” of meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, on page 71. Meadowsweet also pleases the nose: its flowers are “heavily scented, recalling musk or honey”.

But Harrap says that its “name refers to its use in flavouring mead and other drinks, rather than a predilection for meadows”. Information like that is rare. Even though he isn’t trying to be comprehensive, he has a lot of plants to cover and usually limits himself to the botanical minimum: descriptions of appearance, habitat, growing season and any similar species. This is a field guide, after all: “take the book to the plant, not the plant to the book”, as he says in the introduction.

The bigger and heavier the book, the harder that is to do. But I’d call Harrap’s Wild Flowers a work of art and not just a field guide. It’s well-designed and a pleasure to leaf through, full of attractive colours and interesting shapes, and the photographs seem like little windows on spring and summer. But summer can be sinister: the section devoted to the Orobanchaceae family (pp. 241-6) has the strange parasites known as broomrapes and toothworts. Their stems jut from the ground in almost predatory fashion, coloured in putrefactive browns, yellows and purples. You could imagine them growing in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Garden of Adompha”, fertilized by corpses. And the flowers of purple toothwort, Lathraea clandestina, look like a convention of hooded priests, conspiring together in a graveyard. It has “no aerial stem, the flowers arising in clusters directly from the underground rhizome”.

However, the beauty of flowers like peach-leaved bellflower, Campanula persicifolia, outweighs the beastliness of the broomrapes, and this book is a sunny read. I would make only two changes to it. First, the maps use dark green dots to indicate where a particular plant has been recorded. That’s fine when it grows inland, where the green stands out against white, but when it’s a coastal species the green is sometimes hard to make out on the black line of the coastline. A different colour or lighter green would have been preferable.

Second, Harrap doesn’t always record when a plant is poisonous. Monkshood, Aconitum napellus, and deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, get info boxes about their deadliness, but hemlock, henbane and thornapple don’t (Conium maculatum, Hyoscyamus niger and Datura stramonium, respectively). Nor does hemlock water-dropwort, Oenanthe crocata. These omissions save space but make the plants less interesting to the uninitiated. I don’t think anyone will be put in danger by not being told about henbane, thornapple and company – poisonous plants generally look unappetizing – but you look at a plant in a new way when you know it’s poisonous and a little symbol like a skull-and-crossbones could have been added if there wasn’t room in the text.

But these are minor flaws. Harrap’s Wild Flowers is delightful to look at, easy to use and deserves a place on every British botanophile’s bookshelf, whether you’re interested in avens above or helleborines below.

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Wicked Plants by Amy StewartWicked Plants: The A-Z of Plants that Kill, Maim, Intoxicate and Otherwise Offend, Amy Stewart (Timber Press 2010)

One of the most memorable villains in fiction is Ernst Blofeld, who battles James Bond in various books and films. Blofeld’s most memorable scheme is the garden of death he creates in You Only Live Twice (1964) to exploit the Japanese taste for suicide. As Ian Fleming puts it: Blofeld wants to “slay it with flowers”.

He would have found this book an excellent guide for his gardening. But he couldn’t have hoped to collect everything here, because it covers a world of wickedness and weathers, from monkshood in Scotland to mouse trap trees in Madagascar. The former is metabolically offensive: its alkaloid poison aconite “paralyzes the nerves, lowers the blood pressure, and eventually stops the heart” (pg. 2). The latter is mechanically offensive: its seeds are covered in hooked spines and “humans who have been caught in its grip report that attempting to remove the seedpods is like getting caught in a Chinese finger trap” (pg. 218).

The Chinese are famous for their ingenious tortures, but Mother Nature is more ingenious still. After all, she invented the Chinese too. Natural poisons can attack the muscles, the nerves, the skin and the brain. They can cripple you, blind you, kill you and drive you mad. That’s why they’re interesting. Amy Stewart covers every kind of offensive plant, from trees and grasses to cacti and algae, and quotes everyone from Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud to Hippocrates and Ovid. Whether it’s poisonous or simply a pest, you should find it discussed here: deadly nightshade and tobacco are killers, kudzu and water hyacinth are pests.

But there isn’t actually an entry under “Z”: the book starts with “Aconite” and ends with “Yew”. Which is appropriate, because humanity wouldn’t exist without plants. They enhance our lives in countless ways too. This book turns the leaf and discusses plants that destroy or distress us instead. It’s full of botany, chemistry, history and mean green machines.

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