Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Big, Bad, Book of Botany by Michael Largo

Source of book: I own this

Michael Largo has written several books that I want to read, not the least of which is one about how famous people died. It sounds rather irreverent and morbid, which is rather my style when it comes to celebrities. However, I ended up buying this book first, because I thought that the kids might have fun with it in connection with our current study of biology.

This book isn’t a textbook or anything, but a collection of short essays on particular interesting plants. The author focuses on plants that are interesting (to him), but specifically ones that are poisonous, medicinal, or symbolic - often all three. Thus, in alphabetical order, it goes from “Absinthe” to “Zubrowka,” with a panoply of bizarre and interesting plants in between.

One thing I like about books like this is that one can read a few pages at a time, without losing the thread of the plot. It is perfect for those odd bits of time too short to dive into something more involved.

For the most part, I liked this book. Most of the information was accurate and verifiable - and interesting. My one quibble is that the author is content to list the ways that the plants have been used medicinally by other cultures without any indication as to whether there is any actual beneficial effect, or whether there are potential harmful side effects. If anything, he is too credulous as to claims of medicinal benefits.

This isn’t a big deal in the case of, say, willow bark (which contains the chemical known to us as aspirin). It is unlikely one could swallow a harmful dose, unless one drinks a huge quantity of willow tea. Others are less safe, with the therapeutic dose uncomfortably close to the fatal dose. And there are others that have no active ingredients that would have the desired effect, but rely on a placebo effect. The author treats homeopathy as if it might have some merit, not noting that the endless dilutions of any possible substance make the commercial remedies literally nothing more than “blessed” water.

The failure to distinguish between legitimate uses and folk remedies is particularly egregious in the case of the Yew tree. The author mentions that it was used by some cultures in treatment of cancer. The author fails to clarify that some modern chemotherapy drugs were originally obtained from Yew bark, and that, since Yew is pretty dang poisonous, self medication is likely to be fatal, rather than therapeutic. This probably wouldn’t bother me so much if there wasn’t already a general distrust of science and medicine and a willingness to embrace forms of self-medication. So, if you get cancer, please don’t chew on a Yew tree. Go see a doctor.

I will give the author credit for at least noting the risks inherent in the various psychoactive plants described. Use at one’s own risk. (Or not.)

I’ll just mention a few of my favorites from the book.
First is the Welwitschia, a unique gymnosperm (conifer) that - unusual for plants - never sheds its leaves. Since the plant can live over a thousand years, this is quite amazing. 

Another is the Hydnora, a parasitic plant that attracts pollinators through its fecal smell. Despite the smell, it is edible, and considered tasty. (Similar, perhaps, to the Durian, which unfortunately does not make it into the book.)

I was also pleased to see that Oleander got its just deserts. Here in Central California, this stuff grows everywhere, including in freeway dividers. During the spring and summer, it has attractive flowers, and it has the advantage of being nearly impossible to kill. It can resist drought and pests, and stays green all year. The problem? It is highly poisonous. Not just if eaten. The sap can get in scratches (which are all to easy to get) and cause respiratory issues, the smoke when it burns is toxic, and a few of the leaves can kill if eaten. One of the first things I did when I moved to my current house was to remove the Oleander. Despite using gloves and long sleeves, I still got angry sap blisters, and felt under the weather for a day afterward. Glad to have it gone.

This is a fun book for an introduction to some unusual and unexpectedly fascinating plants. Read and enjoy, but don’t mistake it for a medical manual.

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