Some years ago, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden hosted an exhibit of “evil plants” that had the potential to harm not only the gardeners who grew them, but anyone else who might make contact with them. The exhibit, of course, was designed to protect visitors from harm; it was an instructive showcase of the dangers that can lurk in our landscapes.
Some plants that grow in the wild or in cultivated gardens are toxic enough to cause death. Still, many have been used throughout history for medicinal purposes, in rites of passage or for witchcraft and other purposes. They can be alluring and beautiful, hiding their deadly characteristics behind their charms.
Take wolfsbane, for instance—just don’t take it internally. Ancient herbalists wrote about this wicked plant, also known as wolf bane, and described its effectiveness as a poison. A member of the Aconite family, wolfsbane is a perennial wildflower, native to Europe and parts of Asia, and all parts of the plant are deadly.
Handling wolfsbane can cause severe symptoms, including numbness and dermatitis. Hunters once dipped their arrows into the juice from the plants, or baited traps with them, to poison wolves, rats and other animals around their barns and pastures. Aconite was also said to have been an ingredient in “flying ointments” made by witches to create the sensation of soaring.
Dioscorides, an early Roman physician and pharmacologist, knew wolfsbane as lycoctonum, which comes from the Greek words for “wolf” and “man.” The plants were believed to have the power to ward off werewolves and shape shifters, and were strung around doorways and grown near homes.
Today, these plants are commonly known as monkshood. They bear yellow, cream or blue flowers from spring into summer.
Books by early herbalists also reference other “bane” plants, meaning nightmarish plants that cause distress and pain leading up to death. Fleabane (Mentha pulegium), for instance, is an aromatic member of the mint family often referred to as pennyroyal. While its dried leaves have been used to repel fleas and other insect pests, the plant contains essential oils that are toxic to animals and humans. Even handling the plants may irritate the skin or cause serious allergic reactions.
Daturas, plants that belong to the Solanaceae family, are also “wicked” plants. Their relatives include Brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet; Nicotiana, or tobacco plant; and such common edibles as the potato, eggplant, tomato and chili pepper.
Datura stramonium, commonly called Jimson weed or Jamestown weed, are sprawling perennials with large, white, trumpet-shaped flowers. Sacred Datura, D. wrightii, produces pale lavender and white blooms and goes by the nicknames devil’s trumpet, deadly nightshade, mad apple, stink weed and locoweed.
All Daturas can cause permanent damage and are highly poisonous, although their toxicity is thought to vary depending on the plant’s age and growing conditions. Native peoples of the Southwest have traditionally used certain Daturas in ceremonies and rituals to generate visions; the plants’ hallucinogenic properties are well known. In the Caribbean, Daturas are called the “herb of the sorcerers” and used to induce heightened states of perception.
English yew, Taxus baccata, is another poisonous garden plant. While it’s often used as a hedge or landscape plant in America and Europe, it contains an alkaloid that can have serious health consequences, including heart failure. But even so-called “evil” plants can have some redeeming values. In the 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration approved Taxol, a drug made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, for the treatment of breast and ovarian cancers.
Many wicked plants are beautiful and fascinating to grow, but never experiment with them, and avoid even handling those that may cause injury or death. Your garden should be a magical place—never a place for harmful, deadly plants.
HGTVGardens does not recommend the use or handling of any of the plants in this article, as they may cause injury or death.