STEVE INSKEEP, host:
You or somebody you know may be cultivating a peaceful garden this summer growing roses or vegetables. But the folks at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden have something more sinister in mind. They've been reading Amy Stewart's newest book called "Wicked Plants." NPR's Margot Adler took a look at some lurking plants that can be dangerous or deadly.
MARGOT ADLER: The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has lily ponds and greenhouses filled with desert and tropical plants. But you can tell there's something unusual going on this year just by looking at some of the plants that border the garden path. There are black pansies, blood red flowers and spiky plants, all to give a feeling that things are not quite as placid and peaceful in the plant kingdom as you might believe.
We stopped by some oleander, a plant that has beautiful flowers. But Amy Stewart says if you ingest enough of it it will stop your heart.
Ms. AMY STEWART (Author, "Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities"): There's a woman in Southern California who tried to murder her husband with oleander. And it didn't work. She did give him enough. So ended up in the hospital and he survived. And she killed him with antifreeze. She is actually on death row right now. She attempted to murder her husband with a plant.
ADLER: Stewart says she became interested in wicked plants because when she would visit people's gardens…
Ms. STEWART: You know, people were always sort of saying to me just as I was leaving, you know what, come here, come here, come here. I want to show you this thing I have tucked away in the corner. Now, don't tell anyone I have this. And so a lot of these were sort of illicit plants, illegal plants, but also very painful or very deadly plants. And it just got me thinking that there's a real dark side to the plant kingdom that we don't think about much.
ADLER: In fact, she says many people assume that everything in nature is for human beings, not realizing that many plants have protective poisons to defend themselves from bugs and animals, including us.
While the Brooklyn Botanic Garden doesn't have any illegal plants, like cannabis, it does have some dangerous ones, like jimson weed, which may have been named for Jamestown, where the colonists landed and many of the first settlers got sick from it. Years later, the colonists apparently gave jimson weed to British soldiers, who were incapacitated for days.
There are hundreds of plants with a dark side and some are surprising. We're running our hands over a beautiful hedge of yew when Stewart says this actually a very poisonous. But only if you eat it, I ask, right?
Ms. STEWART: That's right. You'd have to ingest it. And you do notice that I can't keep my hands off these plants. I keep touching them as I'm talking.
ADLER: Over the years, she says, she's learned to be careful. To wear gloves in the garden. One day she became totally dizzy wandering through a field of tobacco. It's really a wicked plant, she says.
Ms. STEWART: You know, it's killed 90 million people. So I was so excited to see a field of it that I went running out and sort of put my arms around. I mean, I almost hugged this plant. Well, it was like being covered in nicotine patches. You absorb it through your skin. The leaves are just sticky with nicotine. And I got a little dizzy. My heart started racing. I was like, man, I need to remember to get my hands off these plants.
ADLER: We come across a beautiful tree in a meadow, but there's a skull and crossbones next to it. It's poison sumac. Stewart says this tree changed the life of one of the founders of Central Park.
Ms. STEWART: This is the plant that Frederick Law Olmsted stumbled into when he was about 14. He was out of school for a year, because it did so much damage to his eyesight. And he sort of attributes that year of just wandering the fields and having all this empty time in his life as to what got him interested in landscape architecture.
ADLER: The wicked plants exhibit is at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden until mid-September. There you can find scores of examples of plants that can make you sick, make you hallucinate and a few that can even kill. It's a lovely way to walk on the dark side.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
(Soundbite of music)