June/July/Aug 2009

Bad Seeds

Illustrated field guides dig up the plant kingdom’s dark roots

Trinie Dalton


The first time I thought of a plant as wicked, I realized I had crossed over into some fanatic realm of botanical empathy, joining ranks with plant enthusiasts so allied to particular species that it had become their personal responsibility—destiny, perhaps—to protect good plants, those susceptible sentient beings, against leafy villainy. By contract, of course, a gardener is a guardian assigned to protect a chosen plot from its hostile environment. But I discovered just how fervently humans impose a moral construct on the Plantae kingdom when a docent, in whose education program I was enrolled, compared pampas grass to the Nazi regime. Extreme, isn’t it? But pampas grass, also condemned in the “Lawn of Death” section of Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants as an “invasive scourge,” has infested coastal bluff and chaparral scrub along much of California’s coast. Thankfully, Stewart’s approach to condemning plants is more judicious than was my censorious teacher’s. Yet even Wicked Plants’ cover implies the forbidden. On it, a Celtic-ornamented pattern displays the title, whose scroll is held fast by wrought-iron-like black lines, as if to say “Enter at your own risk!” From the outset, one prepares for the modern equivalent to a medieval herbal.

Like that antiquated predecessor, Wicked Plants delivers a satisfying, encyclopedic blend of fact and far-fetched anecdote. Yet here, one will not find descriptions of fabled vegetable lambs and man-eating tropical trees. Stewart’s plant descriptions are accurate, and she discusses the science behind what makes her culprits injurious. Organized according to level of peril—Offensive, Intoxicating, Painful, Illegal, Dangerous, Destructive, and Deadly—the plants included are guilty not only of killing pets, poisoning kids, and “horticultural homicide” but also of having generated centuries of sordid legend. One is seduced less by bits of obvious advice (e.g., don’t get cats stoned on marijuana) than by accounts of botany’s role in myth. Aconitum napellus, Stewart writes, “sprang from the spit of the three-headed hound Cerberus as Hercules dragged it out of Hades.” Happily, this fleshes out what two other highly recommended titles on wicked plantsWilliam Emboden’s Bizarre Plants: Magical, Monstrous, Mythical and Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs—also claim. In the former, Cerberus drools because he’s “under the influence of Hecate,” while Cunningham’s focuses on aconite’s contradictory ability both to ward off werewolves (thus its common name, wolfsbane) and to cure them of silver-bullet poisoning. Stewart does not mention that aconite was a main ingredient in witches’ salves, though the omission of such details distinguishes this volume from its more supernatural relatives.

Mythological import is often enriched by scientific explication. Mandrake—a human-looking root that, when yanked from the soil, was said to shriek “so loudly that its screams would kill anyone who heard it”—was the main ingredient in Juliet’s sleeping potion. Yet Stewart reminds the reader that Mandragora officinarum’s “soporific magic” is actually caused by atropine and other compounds, which slow the nervous system and induce coma. Briony Morrow-Cribbs’s exquisite etchings offer enough visual information for identification. The only lamentable aspects to Wicked Plants are that a mere forty plants are illustrated and that fantastic imagery is not included alongside the botanical renderings, to echo the text. Any chapter on mandrake without a medieval woodcut depiction of a tiny, carrotlike man, whose “foot-tall rosette of leaves” serves as the mandrake’s hair, feels incomplete. In the world of field guides, one quickly learns that acquiring a whole collection of books is the only path to holistic understanding. Wicked Plants is a most welcome addition to my shelf about bewitched and sinister organisms.

Ditto for Arik Roper’s new treatment of an eldritch topic—psychedelic mushrooms—in Mushroom Magick, though its subtitle, A Visionary Field Guide, is a stretch. The only things here that will help hunters are the short genus introductions, written by New York Mycological Society lecturer and Audubon-guide author Gary Lincoff, who reminds the reader of legitimate identification methods, such as spore printing. Roper, an established album-cover illustrator and fantasy artist in the style of Vaughn Bodé, Frank Frazetta, and the Brothers Hildebrandt, has applied a rainbow of watercolor to render members in each fungal genus whose ingestion has entheogenic effect. The most recognizable hallucinogenic all-stars, like Amanita muscaria and its close relative Amanita pantherina, their red or yellow-tan caps flecked with white, are imbued with retro mysticism, not only when wizards or mice share the page but also when set against skies painted aswirl like tie-dye. Roper is most impressive when he manages stem and gill differentiation among nondescript little brown mushrooms, namely those from the Psilocybe genus that resemble jillions of other species, like the deadly galerina, curiously absent from Stewart’s chapter “Fatal Fungus.” In Mushroom Magick, Psilocybe cubensis and cyanescens defer to King Liberty Cap (Psilocybe semilanceata), which looks as if it were painted by a troll staring up at the mushroom’s purple-veined, pointy blue cap. In real life, liberty caps are measly little gray-brown mushrooms that one would probably step on, without noticing, while crossing a soggy lawn.

While Roper’s paintings do elucidate the physical properties of these mushrooms, this book clearly aims, according to his afterword, to interpret the “character of each of these mushrooms” with the desire to encourage communication between species as “an antidote to the sickness of the rampant human ego.” I hope it works. Two other eloquent and freaky essays in Mushroom Magick, by Erik Davis and Daniel Pinchbeck, reiterate this essentialist viewpoint, which Timothy Leary, R. Gordon Wasson, and Terence McKenna made famous from the late ’50s forward, when mushrooms segued from being “no longer ‘poisonous’” into being “‘hallucinogenic’ . . . or for the first time, were seen as desirable,” according to Andy Letcher’s Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. Davis’s text, “Shroom with a View,” does a wonderful job of summarizing mycology’s “occult legacy,” from theories of Druid and Viking mushroom usage to documented accounts of Mesoamerican and Siberian shamanistic practices. Davis plows through centuries of legend to trace how mushrooms came to symbolize counterculture, framing Roper’s work as a more advanced incarnation of rock poster art. Interestingly, he also marks the replacement of fungal illustration with photography in the late 1970s and consequently calls for a nontraditional reading of Roper’s guide as one “exploring . . . the field of perception, of mind, of spirit.”

Pinchbeck hints at a deeper reasoning behind this resurgent interest in illustrated field guides. As our age of digital documentation makes scientific identification much easier, it becomes crucial to remember botany’s alternate universe, in which “visionary catalysts” act “as tools of psychotherapy and healing.” To avoid sounding like he’s ingested a few too many cups of ’shroom tea, he admits, “While I have no desire to worship the mushroom, I feel tremendous gratitude for the wisdom it has imparted to me, and the mysteries it has revealed.” From this reliably sober position, Pinchbeck posits that books such as Roper’s and Stewart’s seek to recover “the relationship between the human mind and the visionary intelligence.” While Roper promises revelation and Stewart proffers caution, both authors beckon us into a realm in which plants and fungi are at least as powerful as humans and, at best, much more charming.

A Brooklyn-based writer and artist, Trinie Dalton is the author of Mythtym (PictureBox, 2008) and the novel Wide Eyed (Akashic, 2005).

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