Debbie Arrington

‘The Big, Bad Book of Botany’ captures secret lives of scary plants

Author Michael Largo looked for the darker, quirkier side of the plant world and came up with “The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora.”
Author Michael Largo looked for the darker, quirkier side of the plant world and came up with “The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora.” HarperCollins

When author Michael Largo moved from New York to Miami, he was immediately amazed by the tropical plants. They were so beautiful and, often, so deadly.

The more he learned about them, the more Largo became intrigued. He wanted to know their stories, if only plants could talk.

“No one has cracked the encrypted language of plants,” Largo wrote. “Insects chirp, bees buzz, animals growl, hiss, hum and even transmit low-frequency sound waves. But plants, as far as we know, never say a thing.”

Yet, somehow, billions of species have developed ways to propagate their species and survive. Largo sought their secrets.

The result of Largo’s research is a thick, 400-page paperback compendium of unusual botanical knowledge aptly named “The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora” (William Morrow, $18.99).

“All my books are like that,” Largo said with a laugh. “I spent too much time on tangents.”

Largo also wrote “Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die.”

His interests tend to gravitate toward morbid curiosity.

That makes this botanical book perfect pre-Halloween reading for gardeners with a slightly twisted take on their flower beds.

“Botany” was a natural companion to Largo’s “The Big Bad Book of Beasts,” devoted to all sorts of scary animals, big and small. The progression from fauna to flora seemed natural, but it wasn’t easy.

“There are already plenty of books on gardening and botany,” he said in a phone interview recently. “The challenge was to do something different.”

So Largo focused on plants with an often-fatal difference.

But his latest book goes way beyond deadly plants. In encyclopedic style, it stretches from A (absinthe, the perennial used to distill the infamous green liqueur) to Z (zubrowka, the sweetgrass used in Polish vodka).

There are many side trips into just plain weird facts. Such as:

▪ Giant 60-foot bamboo is the world’s tallest grass.

▪ Ancient Egyptians worshiped the onion because its shape symbolized eternal life.

▪ Damp birch bark can be molded into a cast for broken legs or arms.

▪ Avocados developed their thick alligator skin so birds could not peck through to the fruit. Although delicious to humans, avocados can be deadly to many other mammals.

▪ Through the magic of nature’s mathematics, sunflowers almost always produce exactly 55 or 144 seeds.

Along with a forest of trivia, Largo shares many forgotten medicinal benefits of common plants, detailing how what we know now about chemical compounds and enzymes may be the science behind legends, potions and witchcraft.

An example is Scopolia carniolica, nicknamed devil’s breath.

“It grows in Central America and Colombia,” Largo said. “It has this strong mix of alkaloids known as scopolamine. It turns people into zombies; it lowers their connective abilities to the point where they seem like walking dead. It’s the plant at the root of the zombie legend.

“Now that’s a bad plant.”

Other “bad” plants are much more common. Oleander, fast-growing and drought-tolerant, is a popular landscape plant throughout the sunbelt. It lines California freeways, including long stretches of Interstate 80 near Sacramento. Yet it’s extremely toxic.

“Oleander has beautiful flowers, but just like every other part of that plant, they’re deadly,” Largo said. “Only certain species of hummingbirds and bees can go near it.”

This sort of symbiotic relationship is repeated often in nature, where plants over centuries developed certain traits to attract specific fauna.

Another example is the corpse flower; it smells like decaying meat. That’s offensive to people, but beetles and flesh flies flock to it – and pollinate the flower.

“This blind thing has no brain, no eyes, no ears,” Largo observed, “but somehow it comes up with this technique (to attract pollinators) and continue its species.”

Largo’s favorite “bad” plant? Belladonna.

“This plant has an awful long history, and it’s definitely killed a lot of people,” Largo said.

“Among other things, it was used to poison royalty. Taste-testers, who would test the food before the king, would build up an immunity. They would be unaffected, but the king – boom!”

It all boils down to survival – particularly for the plants. And some of them will outlive us all.

“There are trees on this planet, the oldest living things, that are 2,000 years old or more,” Largo said. “You’ve got to wonder how they did it. They’ve lived through so much history.

“If only trees could talk.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.