Monday, October 12, 2009

Wicked Plants (copy)

It was a beautiful July day when we hired a guide to lead us up one of the mountains in Alaska’s Denali National Park. Isaac, the guide provided by our remote lodge, packed us lunches for a full day of hiking that included animal sightings and a nap in a wildflower covered meadow. Along the way, we snacked on the abundance of wild berries that Isaac promised were safe.

I must give Isaac’s credentials. All of 25, young Isaac was a botanist with one children’s book on spiders published and a dream to work on an Alaskan crab boat. Both of us trusted his judgment; even though, I was reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer in which the author claims Christopher MacCandless’ death on eating poisonous “Alaskan” berries.

Isaac taught us the difference between safe and dangerous berries on this hike. We now forage on berries while hiking as an energy boost. Um, this was before I read Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants and all those nasty little berries lurking around to poison me.

The full title is Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & other Botanical Atrocities. The fun chapter titles include: “This Houseplant could be Your Last,” “Deadly Dinner,” “Stop and Smell the Ragweed,” “Weeds of Mass Destruction,” and “The Devil’s Bartender.”

In “Deadly Dinner” Stewart points out that everyday edibles can make you sick if they are not prepared correctly. Did you know that corn can kill if it makes up a major part of one’s diet? The disease is called pellagra with symptoms that “came to be known as the four D’s: dermatitis, dementia, diarrhea, and death.” Stewart continues, “the ghastly symptoms of pellagra could have inspired European myths of vampirism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: pale skin that erupted in blisters when exposed to the sun, sleepless nights brought on by dementia, an inability to eat normal food because of digestive problems, and a morbid appearance just before death.”

Yum, pass the corn!

Are you having any chili cookouts this fall? Be sure to cook the kidney beans thoroughly. Undercooked they can cause severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Not a parting gift one likes to bestow on guests.

If Stewart’s name sounds familiar, I wrote about her last book Flower Confidential. She is a fascinating author who describes our plant world and the mayhem lurking in beautiful greenery.