Florida's Five Freakiest Plants, According to Author Michael Largo
Belladonna, illustrated by Pauline Goldsmith
Plants give us life, literally. Without their oxygen-producing abilities and edible extremities, humans wouldn't last long.
But how often do we take the time to appreciate the plant kingdom, in all its silent, green magnificence? Plants deserve our respect, our consideration, and sometimes, our stupefaction.
Because there are some seriously freaky plants out there. And in addition to giving you life, lots of 'em can kill you.
We spoke to Miami author Michael Largo, author of The Big, Bad Book of Botany, about Florida's freakiest flora.
"South Florida has more than 2,500 cases of plant poisoning a year -- people eating wild plants. It's pretty high, one of the highest in the nation," says Largo. So maybe don't make with the foraging unless you've got some serious expertise.
On that note, here are some of the freakiest, deadliest plants in our backyards:
5. American Holly Bush
"Its berries are red [and poisonous] and they grow in big, bushy kind of trees. But the cool thing about it is, the berries ferment. So if you hear birds singing at night or see the trees packed with birds -- they're getting drunk on the berries. I had one at my house, they would keep me up all night long, singing."
Note: This does not work for humans. The berries are toxic to humans, so no trying to catch a buzz.
Illustration by Jeanie Duck
4. White Death Cap mushroom
"We have a whole bunch of mushrooms here that are poisonous -- not just the kind that get you high," says Largo. The white death cap, for example. Insidiously, this fungus resembles a lot of edible mushroom varieties. So careful now, urban foragers. We've also got lots of the trippy funghi.
"A whole bunch of 'magic mushrooms' grow on cow pies," adds Largo. "They bloom best after the rain, so if you see guys in a cow pasture after the rain looking for cow dung, that's what they're looking for."
This deadly bush has earned its place in history on more than a few occasions.
"It grows pretty wildly down here. It grows along the roadside and is really the star of poison. It's been used to kill kings! You can build up a tolerance for it," adds Largo, hence why it was a sneaky way to murder your enemies.
"Another name for it is nightshade. It's kind of hard to distinguish -- it's like a shrub about four feet high and has purple bell shaped flowers."
Illustration by Carol Ann Lane
Remember that movie White Oleander? Besides Michelle Pfeiffer in prison, all you need to remember is that someone died via flower.
"It's this group of flowers that are super poisonous. They plant them pretty much everywhere and every part of the plant is poisonous, from the flower to the stem," says Largo. "They plant them around schools, nursing homes -- they're beautiful flowers but any part of it is poisonous. It's illegal to grow in some other counties but not here."
In other words, they're gorgeous but deadly.
1. Manchineel tree
This one, you'll seriously want to steer clear of.
"We have the most poisonous trees here in the whole world. The Manchineel tree --
whenever they find one they put a sign on it warning, 'do not touch'. It oozes this white sap if you just lean against it or stand against it your skin blisters. It gives off toxic fumes that could cause blindness. If you're having a little picnic under the Manchineel tree you'll be blind and have respiratory problems," he laughs.
We also probably have this tree to thank for Ponce de Leon's failed attempts to find the Fountain of Youth. DAMMIT.
"The Calusa Indians knew this and they used to dip their arrows in this poison. We know that Ponce de Leon was killed by a poison arrow from a Calusa, and I believe it was from that tree," says Largo.
Largo's tome, which is a very cool, quirky look at the plant kingdom (paired with illustrations by artists by Miami's Tropical Botanic Artists Collective) is now available in stores, and he'll be appearing at Books & Books in Coral Gables on August 22.
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