Amy Stewart Educates and Entertains
By Linda King, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Horticultural author Amy Stewart has just published a new book: Wicked Plants: a Book of Botanical Atrocities. Based on what I’ve read about her, you won’t want to miss it! Ms. Stewart admits to being fascinated by the natural world and she writes with a most entertaining style. For example, from her new book: “A tree sheds poison daggers; a glistening red seed stops the heart; a shrub causes intolerable pain; a vine intoxicates; a leaf triggers a war. Within the plant kingdom lurk unfathomable evils.” One could almost think it the beginning of a fantastic murder mystery! And, in a way, it is.
In this book, Amy Stewart narrates story after story of someone done in by a plant. She also gives warning to the naiveté with which many gardeners approach their plants. She writes: "We would never pick up a discarded coffee cup from the sidewalk and drink from it, but on a hike we'll nibble unfamiliar berries as if they had been placed there for our appetites alone. We'll brew a medicinal tea from unrecognizable bark and leaves that a friend passes along, assuming that anything natural must be safe. And when a baby comes home, we rush to add safety caps to electrical outlets, but ignore the houseplant in the kitchen and the shrub by the front door-this in spite of the fact that 3,900 people are injured annually by electrical outlets, while 68,847 are poisoned by plants." That’s a scary figure! Nearly 70,000 poisoned each year by plants? Those benign creatures we nurture every day in our gardens? Yikes!
Amy has written three other books, all to do with a unique and fascinating part of the natural world she adores. Her first book, From the Ground up: the Story of a First Garden, a memoir of her first garden in Santa Cruz, was published in 2001. Kirkus Reviews called it "a rich feast of a book that celebrates the extraordinarily satisfying joys of making and keeping a garden". Here she chronicles the trials, tribulations and triumphs experienced during her first year as a gardener, at the same time giving us a funny, loving portrait of the town of Santa Cruz. In her second book, published in 2005, The Earth Moved: on the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, Ms. Stewart tells us everything you ever wanted to know about earthworms but were afraid to ask. She writes: "I realized that I understood very little about the plot of land under my own house. Do I even hold title to this ground…? …And who lives down there, under my house? When I think of my property as extending not just across to the neighbor's fence, and back to the alleyway, but down a hundred feet or more, I realize that I paid a paltry sum for a kingdom that just happened to have a house sitting on top of it. Millions-no, billions-of organisms inhabit my little piece of land, and it shocks me to realize how little I know of them."
And she goes on to write that she came to realize that the lowly earthworm holds the key to most of what happens underground: "When I stand over a patch of earth and wonder about the subterranean activity taking place underfoot, I am not alone. Gardeners are inquisitive by nature; we are explorers; we like to turn over a log or pull up a plant by the roots to see what's there. Most of the gardeners I know are, like me, quite interested in earthworms, in the work they do, churning the earth, making new dirt. We hold soil in our hands, we squeeze it and smell it as if we are checking a ripe melon, and we sift through it to see what inhabits it. Ask a gardener about the earthworm population in her garden, and I guarantee she will have something to say on the subject."
Now there’s a fellow gardener!
In Amy’s third book, Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers, she gives a behind-the-scenes look into a business that has, according to the author, existed since before the birth of Jesus Christ and is now worth about 40 billion dollars annually: the commercial flower trade. In the introduction, she asks us, “Where have our desires led us? Are we, in fact, gilding the lily?” and then proceeds to provide some interesting and, at times, troubling, facts about this business. In fact, in a recent article in the English newspaper, The Guardian she writes about the environmental impact the flower industry is having.
Maude Barlow, senior adviser on water to the president of the UN General Assembly, argues that the environmental costs are also unforgivably high. Polluted runoff and depletion of water levels at Kenya's Lake Naivasha, where more than 30 flower farms are located, are problems that we must take responsibility for. The lake…is an important source of drinking water for local villagers and a habitat for hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife. "The water levels are down about 25%," she says, "and the hippopotamuses - the largest wild tribe left in east Africa - are dying. They're baking in the sun. The lake can't sustain this any longer."
And it isn't just Lake Naivasha. "Every single big lake in Africa is in crisis," she says. "Europe does wonderful work preserving its own water, but the way it's doing that is to use other people's water." Add the water footprint to the carbon footprint, factor in the implications of chemical use on the farms and poor working conditions for workers, and it's a wonder the flowers don't wilt under the weight of all this worry.
She goes on in the article, however, to talk about three entrepreneurial English growers who have turned to responsible commercial flower production. She describes Heather Gorringe who, through her company Wiggly Wigglers, ships 650 natural bouquets a day packed with whatever is blooming that day in her Hertfordshire gardens. She tells us about Jane Lindsey of Snapdragon Garden Flowers in Scotland who is trying to convince consumers to buy flowers in season and ships bulbs for Mother’s Day gifts (Mother’s Day falls in March in England). And she writes about Rosebie Morton of the Real Flower Company who has formed a partnership with a sustainable flower farm in Kenya, one that is located in an area that received sufficient rainfall and where they collect the rainwater that is used to grow the old-fashioned scented roses she ships. In addition, the farm supports local schools for the children of the 500 workers who are employed at a decent wage at the farm as well other local children.
She ends the article by saying, “In spite of everything I've seen, my mother still gets a bouquet on Mother's Day. It takes a bit more effort, but every year I manage to find flowers that were raised as carefully as she raised me, and that please both of us.”
But she also has great practical suggestions for those of us who can’t resist a huge bouquet in the grocery store. In a recent radio interview, she said that in her research she had found that the plants grown for the flower trade have actually been bred to live without water for long periods of time, that they are actually more dependent on temperature than water during the days they are on the boats, planes, trucks that get them from South America, Africa and Europe to our local grocery. She also mentioned that to keep the flowers fresh, shippers limit their exposure to ethylene, the chemical apples and bananas give off when ripening. It turns out, ethylene also causes flowers to bloom faster. So Amy said that whenever she sees a bin of apples or other fresh fruit sitting right next to the cut flower display, she steers clear of those blooms, knowing they will not last once she gets them home.
Amy Stewart and her husband, Scott Brown, moved to Santa Cruz, California in the early 1990’s after completing graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin. They later moved to Eureka where they own and operate an antiquarian bookstore and tend chickens in their backyard…..and garden.
To read Amy’s new book Wicked Plants: A Book of Botanical Atrocities, a book her website calls the ‘A to Z of plants that kill, maim, intoxicate, and otherwise offend, with frightfully fascinating illustrations by Briony Morrow-Cribbs and Jonathon Rosen’ we will all have to wait until May 5th when it is due to be out in bookstores. But to get a taste of it, visit her homepage and watch her YouTube video on the book. After seeing it, I can’t wait for more!