Review | Botanical Curses and Poisons: The Shadow-Lives of Plants – Fez Inkwright

About the Book

 “If you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison,’ it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland  

In both history and fiction, some of the most dramatic, notorious deaths have been through poisonings. Concealed and deliberate, it’s a crime that requires advance planning and that for many centuries could go virtually undetected. And yet there is a fine line between healing and killing: the difference lies only in the dosage! In Botanical Curses and Poisons, Fez Inkwright returns to folkloric and historical archives to reveal the fascinating, untold stories behind a variety of lethal plants, witching herbs, and funghi. Going from A to Z, she covers everything from apple (think of the poisoned fruit in “Snow White”) and the hallucinogenic angel’s trumpet to laurel, which emits toxic fumes, to oleander (a deadly ornamental shrub), with each plant beautifully illustrated by the author herself. This enthralling treasury is packed with insight, lore, and the revealed mysteries of everyday flora—including the prevalence of poisoning in ancient Rome, its use in religion and magic, and common antidotes—making this perfect for gardeners, writers, folklorists, witches, and scientists alike!

257 pages (hardcover)
Published on February 16, 2021
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I’m a big gardener, and I’m also a fantasy author. When I started writing one of my current works in progress, I realized that after the pandemic and health issues and all the emotional upheaval and stress from that, I wanted to write a book that was maybe a bit softer, with a magic system that paid homage to the plant world that I love so much. But I didn’t really want a “kitchen witch” feel to the magic. I wanted something else entirely. I settled on a “flower magic” system. 

The problem is, I don’t really grow flowers. I have an absolutely huge garden, but “flowers” is not really part of it. I grow vegetables and fruits, and a lot of them come from all around the world, but I don’t really grow flowers. So I knew when I set out to write this book that I needed to get books about flowers, and about the specific parts of them I need for this magic system. 

Upon my search for books that fit what I needed, I ran across this one. It wasn’t really what I needed for my writing research, but it looked interesting so I sort of shrugged and added it to my cart. 

Reader, it was probably one of the best random decisions I’ve made in a while. This book was fantastic.

I’ve always been a bit drawn to the darker side of things. Darker aspects of history, of the world itself. When I saw Botanical Curses and Poisons, I knew it was the book for me. It isn’t terribly long, but it is nonfiction, so I worried I was in for a textbook-style dissertation on the chemical compounds of… or something like that. However, I really blew through this book pretty quickly, as I discovered the topic was not only really interesting, but written in an incredibly accessible manner, along with simple drawings that illuminate rather than distract from the information being given. 

There’s a bit of an introduction section, and then the book goes through a bunch of plants alphabetically, talking about myths involved with them, or how they were used throughout history. I was hugely surprised by nearly every plant listed in this book, and just how they have been used for some pretty major parts of history, like how hellebore was used to turn the tide of a pretty major historical battle, for example, or how the nectar of the angel’s trumpet flowers were used by Victorian women at teatime to get a bit drunk. Mint is even mentioned, not because it’s a poison, but because of the mythology of the plant. 

Inkwrite takes readers on a historical and educational journey throughout the history of plants, using many of them to showcase not just their properties, but how they have been used, and their darker capabilities. And yet it was the accessible nature of his writing that captivated me almost as much as anything else. I was afraid when I bought this book that it would be full of academic jargon and heavy textbook-style prose that would put me to sleep, but what I got here were overviews of countless plants and their stories told in a style that I found surprisingly immersive rather than anything else. Added along with the line drawings in each section, and I was hooked. Plus, I must say, the production quality of this book is out of this world. I don’t typically buy physical books anymore, but this is absolutely one I’m glad I bought. It’s just gorgeous, from cover to cover. 

While each plant does get an overview of history, mythology, and the like, it is just an overview. Important information is given, and I used many of these bits of what I learned as I read to give me jumping-off points for further reading. IE: I went on many an internet deep dive doing research to learn more about these plants after I read about them. For this reason, I will say, this is a book best savored rather than devoured. There’s a ton of information here, but if you’re like me, you’ll be, “Oh, that’s interesting, I want to learn more” google searching as you read. It’ll slow your progress down a bit, but that’s okay, because this is one of those books that is best savored. It’s just, quite frankly, that good. 

I was surprised by most of this book. Some of these things I already knew, but even in the plants I read about that I thought I knew about, I learned unexpected things, whether it was mythology or historical usage or maybe a bit of both. It ended up being, quite frankly, one of the most illuminating plant books I’ve ever read. The accessible prose and the subject matter combined to create a book I both couldn’t put down and couldn’t stop thinking about. 

I don’t know if you’re a plant person like I am, but if you are, I highly suggest giving this book a read. It ended up being one of the highlights of my reading year so far. 

5/5 stars