"Dangerous Garden" is an EXCELLENT book on the history of plants and how humans interact with plants, a topic that I stumbled onto only about a couple of years ago. The book is broken up into eight chapters that cover about 200 pages. There are lots of pictures and color plates, so each chapter is almost a stand-alone section that is just the right length to be read over an afternoon or spread out over a couple of nights at bedtime.
Each chapter covers a category of use or effect that humans have tried to get out of plants. The chapters are:
- The Great Afflictions, covering plants thought to affect diseases such as bubonic plague, malaria and leprosy.
- The Vital Organs, covering plants thought to affect vital organs such as the heart, stomach, etc.
- The Flight from Pain, or the search for pain-relievers, with an extensive section on opium.
- Chasing Venus, which is kind of self-explanatory.
- The Killing Plants, very self-explanatory.
- The Seven Ages of Man, meaning plants that are supposed to prolong life, maintain a youthful appearance, or otherwise slow the passage of time.
- The Mind, or plants that affect the mind and have been both revered and demonized because of it, including marijuana, cocaine, tobacco and qat.
- The Mysteries of the Gods, which covers plants used in religious and shamanic ceremonies, such as peyote.
The book is definitely not a lightweight and people looking for serious information will find a lot of worth. Plants are referred to both by their common name and their scientific names and the index covers both types of terms as well. The Bibliography includes books from 1516 to the 1990s, and the Author's Acknowledgments on the last page list a number of good websites as well.
Stuart discusses the historical uses of various plants and how some plants have gone from being cure-alls in the past to being either banned or sold in the grocery-store spice aisle now. He spends a lot of time on the concept of Janus plants, which are "two-faced" plants, meaning they can both harm and heal, and he also discusses fads in medicine, including a long period of time in the middle ages where if a plant had a visible effect it was thought to be better than one that didn't have a visible effect, so plants that made people sweaty, feverish, nauseous, sleepy, etc. were prescribed in amounts that are horrifying by today's standards.
Some authors talk down to readers, but this author absolutely does not and will jump from discussion of which 19th-century herbal contained which plant to discussion of the exact chemical names of the active alkaloids in a plant, if they are unknown than which other known alkaloids do they resemble, and what current research is being done and current uses and/or speculation.
There are also numerous little facts sprinkled here and there throughout the book which the author clearly can't spend much time on because of space but which are equally fascinating in themselves, such as:
- (pg 188) Morning glory has LSD-like components that have been much studied and have variable effects in mice, rabbits and humans, with some people feeling little effect and other getting a full "trip", although often an unpleasant one.
- (pgs 7-8) Rhubarb was once thought to be an aphrodisiac by the Romans and a cure for a form of malaria by medieval herbalists; until the mid-1500s it was only available to Europe as imported dried roots.
- (pgs 69-70) There was once a great hospital atop Soutra Hill in Scotland, south of Edinburgh, its first charter dated from 1108 (!) and it reached its epogee in 1462 and was finally closed in the 1500s, razed by the late 1800s and its drains, cesspits and middens began to be excavated in the 1980s.
I could go on for pages more, but I will digress. In short, if you like history and if you like plants, you'll probably like this book.