Something Wicked this way comes



Copper etching from Wicked Plantsby Briony Morrow-Cribbs

It’s our giveaway of Amy’s new book, Wicked Plants.

But first, let me muse on the topic for a bit. I’ve read the book and reviewed it here, commenting at one point, “It’s not really about the plants. It’s about us.” Because even if a particular plant is poisonous, or harmful in some other way, our personal interactions or relationships with those plants are what create the undesirable result. I grow many of the plants Amy mentions—nicotiana, castor bean, aconite, datura, jessamine, hellebore, and more—but I don’t think of any of them as wicked, particularly.


Here’s my wicked plant list, and it’s a short one: Acer platanoides/Norway maple. While castor bean, nicotiana (tobacco plant), datura (angel’s trumpet), and the others exist as harmless characters in my patio garden—most of them are annuals, at that—the 3 trees installed on city property between the sidewalk and the road have had a disastrous effect on my front garden for the 10 years I’ve been gardening here.

First there’s the shade: when the trees leaf out, only a small amount of dappled morning light gets through. Then there are the roots: these spread throughout the space at surface level, making it nearly impossible to dig or plant anywhere without power tools. They also suck up much of the available moisture. The leaves of these trees, besides their occasional susceptibility to an unsightly blotching fungus (not life-threatening, sadly), do not decompose naturally. They must be raked and shredded. Lastly, these trees do not belong to me. I need permission from the city to remove or replace them, which, perversely, I am reluctant to do, as it would take a while to replicate their mature canopy. On a summer afternoon, it is still possible to forget about their shortcomings and enjoy looking up at the leaves rustling in the breeze.

So I’ve learned to live with my wicked plants. How about you? Do you have a plant whose dastardly effects are specific to your garden? Please tell about the horrors lurking in your garden in comments, and we’ll send a book to the teller of the most dreadful tale.

Comments can be left until 9 p.m. EST tonight.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. My wicked plant is a classic: poison ivy. The beautiful wooded lot that backs up to a great swathe of wilderness was overwhelmingly attractive when we bought the house but I had no idea I’d spend every Spring Summer & Fall fighting poison ivy. My husband is English and if he has learned nothing else from living in the US he has learned to identify poison ivy at 20 feet and 10 ways to kill it. We poison it (the only place in my garden I use poison) but half the time I pull it by (gloved) hand because it’s more efficient. It’s sneaky and insidious and turns up wrapped in otherwise innocuous plants and most recently, my compost bin.

    And my neighbours won’t make any attempt to control theirs, so try as I might every spring the battle resumes. It’s maddening.

    And itchy.

  2. Not in my garden, but there’s a beautiful Laburnum (golden-chain tree) in the parkette around the corner. It always brings to mind an episode of Mystery!, where laburnum seeds were the (wicked) murder weapon.

  3. This I believe; that there is wickedness in the world and that truly wicked and evil things take place in my own backyard. The most insidious is the conspiracy between poison ivy (a plant) and mosquitoes (an insect). They work in tandem to bring me as much pain as possible. Somehow over time these two characters have worked out the choreography so that after I absent mindedly brush my hand against the plant, I swat and scratch the insect bite thereby getting an even bigger dose of bad juju. How these two characters communicate with each other is a mystery, but it is a wicked and coordinated attack.

  4. My arch nemesis is a type of invasive Campanula (I think the common name is merry bells.) It’s in my lawn, inserts itself in the middle of perennials, and crack in the sidewalk. It has elastic leaves which break if you just try to pull it up, and digging it out only encourages it.

    In the belief that no plant can live without leaves, I have been pretty successful in keeping it at bay in the perennials by pulling its leaves. I hate this plant so much!

    I am sure if I did an analysis, eradicating it would comprise at least 12% of my garden time, depriving me of much more meaningful activites such as drinking a gin and tonic and swooning at the sight of my garden!

  5. Two years ago, I purchased a home with a neglected back yard. I’ve identified seven weeds that are on the state’s noxious weed list. I may never be able to get rid of the bindweed (convolvulus arvensis), but I’ve made headway on the whitetop (cardaria draba). Other offenders: cheatgrass (the kudzu of the west) and deadly nightshade.

  6. Re: the Norway Maple – you forgot the seedlings, which come up everywhere and create a constant weeding chore.

    My runner-up nominee for wicked plant is Garlic Mustard, /Allaria petiolaris/. I learned in Soil Management class that, like other members of the mustard family, it doesn’t form, nor does it require, mycorrhizal associations. Worse, it exudes anti-fungal compounds; where it grows, it sterilizes the soil, reducing the fertility for other plants. It’s an assassin plant.

    I’ve effectively eliminated it from my gardens, but I still see it growing in the neighborhood. It will be a continual battle.

    My primary nominee, which I am fortunate to have never encountered, is Giant Hogweed, /Heracleum mantegazzianum/. It causes severe blistering, far worse than Poison Ivy, which can require hospitalization.

  7. My wicked plants are called Ailanthus–Tree of Heaven—NOT!! When we moved to our 2 1/2 acres in the country so we would have room to garden to our hearts desire we never dreamed we would face such wicked plants. We had 3 on our property. The county extension agent identified them for me and told me to remove them immediately. We did but failed to notice 30 growing in our neighbors yard along our fence line. They send runners all over our yard and sprout everywhere. Their growing tips exude toxins that stunt other plants so they can take over an area. Although we like our neighbors a lot and have tried to educate them as to the problems they cause in native areas not to mention our yard–they do not want to remove the trees. We offered to remove them and plant quality trees for them—-their answer—NO! These trees are beyond wicked—!
    Poison ivy is growing rampant in the mass of ailanthus. We have had to have medical treatment 2 times due to severe poison ivy rashes.
    We have removed 4 quality trees planted on our property because the trees overtook them and destroyed them. We have to crawl around on our hands and knees with a herbicide painting each tree. This only knocks them back temporarily. If we cut them back they re-sprout ten fold. We have been told that our only option since our neighbors refuse to remove them or allow us to remove them is to dig a 3-4 ft trench, use an impenetrable barrier and then fill the trench with gravel. Even if we do that, we will still have to deal with the thousands of trees that sprout as seedlings. Even though they are a nuisance we can pull them out. The ones from suckers are the real problem. The problem with installing a barrier is that it will involve removing many trees we have planted along the fence as well as re-doing our sprinkler system. The below ground electrical lines also run along that fence.
    Another serious issue is a native area across the road. The ailanthus have found their way into the native area. The trees grow fast and are weak wooded. Two have fallen across the road. Thankfully no one was driving by at that time.
    If the economy was not so scary we would sell and move.

  8. My wicked enemy: Black Locust — my neighbors and I share one on our border — neither of us wants to deal with the bill to get rid of it. I’ve been slowing trying to kill it for 5 years by cutting any roots I find and letting English Ivy scale and cover it. The tree has thorns, even in its tiny seedling state, drops hundreds of tiny leaves and poisonous seed pods into your gutters, but worst of all sends out runners far and wide into every garden bed.

  9. My wicked weed is bindweed, and since it’s throughout the entire neighborhood, and my neighbors make no attempt to eradicate…I’ve come to accept it as a yearly battle. Hoe in hand, a weekly chop off of the leaves keeps it in check.

  10. Before I talk about my wicked plant, I have to say to Kathy J above me: How can Black Locust be wicked? It has faults aplenty, but I forgive them all for the incredible fragrance of the flowers.

    My wicked plant is a bit different: Of course poison ivy, canada thistle, and bishops gout weed would be easy choices, but my nomination is none other than the cruel, seductive Meconopsis. Pictures of those impossibly lovely, perfectly blue flowers have sucked money for seeds, plants, wild hair-brained schemes involving giant chunks of ice out of me for years. I know I can’t possibly grow it in my climate, but I can’t stop trying. It has me in its fragile blue grasp, and I can’t escape.

  11. I am cursed with wiregrass and nutsedge that came with my place. Passion vine, God help me, I did to myself. I spent Sunday afternoon with a bucket of herbicide and a trim sized paint roller painting the weeds in about 1000 sq. ft. bed of trees and shrubs.

  12. For poison ivy rash get a bottle of Tecnu. It’s a lotion you wash with if you’ve been exposed or have begun to break out in a rash. It was developed for the Forest Service and effectively sucks the irritating oil out of your skin. I always have some on the shelf. You should be able to find it in drugstores, Wal-Mart, some garden centers.

  13. Ailanthus is surely a product of Satan’s own devising. A Nat. Forest Service person told us that they have some success hacking and painting the trunks with Garlon. I have not been able to find it commercially so it’s probably for professional use only. If you cut them down they just resprout from the roots and the seeds seem to have a 100% germination rate.

    I was cursed with them at my last house but thankfully, not at my current one.

  14. I don’t even know what to call my wicked plant. I don’t think it’s poisonous since the slugs sometimes eat it & are still alive & kickin’ to decimate at least 1 hosta per season. This vine is a boa-constrictor of plants. It climbs up, for example, the hosta flowers & wraps around & around them until they fall over or are just squeezed out. The worst part is I find it all over the yard: grass, garden, neglected wilderness we call a backyard. It’s Rasputin-esque..I dig it up, I pour vinegar on the root system, I douse it in hot water & nothing fully kills it.

    However, it’s unkill-ableness isn’t why its evil. It’s evil because it plays with its “prey”…climbing all over it & smothering it slowly. And it’s hardy enough that I’m afraid it’ll survive the apocalypse. And that’s just scary.

  15. I have an ajuga lawn. That would be fine if ajuga or bugleweed were evergreen but no, just patches of mud in the winter months. Good think I am not obsessed with lawn care.

  16. Wicked poisonous plants in my garden?
    I don’t care. Bring ’em on. It’s not like I’m going to take a bite out of my Echium or squat over a poison ivy plant.
    But it sure would be wicked of me to have a copy of Amy’s book so that I could Xerox certain little evil tidbits and pass them along to some of my neurotic New Mom clients who have melt down tizzy fits worse than their two year olds when they suspect a poisonous plant is in their garden.
    I mean really, do they really want me to rip out the daphne, lobelia, honeysuckel, helleborus, privet hedge, the 20 year old pieris and the adjoining rhododendrons ? , all which are toxic in some form or another.
    I usually tell them that they are that worried that they should move into a high rise apartment and never let their children outdoors.
    Wicked aren’t I ?
    Now off to plant some clivia, elephant ears , lantana, myoporum and narcissus, all which are toxic in one form or another.

  17. Tansy! I’m living with my tansy because I have no choice. According to my Rodale Herb Book (pub. 1974) the name comes from a Greek word meaning immortal. I fear it is immortal not only in my garden, but in my landscape, and eventually in my neighbors’ landscapes.
    The leaves have been used as a seasoning, and medicinally in teas to sooth the nerves, aid digestion and calm female complaints. It is used in the making of Chartreuse liquer. It is an insect repellent and is suggested for growing in the dooryard to keep ants and other bugs out of the house, or tucking in your garden hat. It was used as a strewing herb in the olden days.
    And of course, it is very pretty, with ferny 3’ leaves and little sulfur yellow button flowers from mid summer to fall. Directions are given how to plant it, BUT I missed the paragraph that said “It might be worth the trouble in the long run to plant tansy in a sunken bottomless container such as a clean half 55 gallon drum.” My single wicked tansy plant has not only sent its runners into the field next to the Rose Walk, it sends its seeds everywhere. It is coming up through layers of cardboard and wood chips in my vegetable garden paths. Maybe I should just give up and go into the Chartreuse business.

  18. my wicked weed is a tree and just like the person in the previous post, it is the BLACK LOCUST. Those lovely white flowers fall and of curse then it rains and i have soggy rotting white slimy everything. if i run outside in a hurry and forget about them i usually end up doing one of those spastic muscle pulling dances and sometimes end up going down. fortunately that only lasts for about a week. the rest of the time i am either limping or swearing having stepped on the killer thorns it drops. and also in the locust family are my honey locusts. suggested by a well known landscape architect when i created my back yard he neglected to tell me to get trees that did not bear fruit. he also did not mention that they would send out surface roots that would lift all the fabulous stone in my patio and break the blade on my mower. oh…and then there is my wisteria which is just downright scary. it blooms for a short time and fills my house with dried up purple buds which come in on feet and puppies. it winds it’s way through my gutters and roof tiles and wraps around anything it can get it’s grubby vines on. i don’t stand still near it for very long. then to add injury to insult, it targets me and the pup every time we go out on the porch in autumn. it shoots those nasty pods with the dart-like needles at us until we both sit and howl. my garden is a very dangerous place!

  19. Himalayan Blackberry. The Kudzu of the Northwest. We had it dug out at great expense, but still it sprouts from scraps of roots. A zillion seedlings sprout from old seeds, and the birds bring in more. The berries are lucious, but the thorns are wicked and poison tipped. Everytime I weed, I pluck out incipient groves of holly, mountain ash, and big leaf maple, but they are nothing to Himalayan blackberry. The blackberry is only rivaled by English Ivy the destroyer of forests, but Ivy doesn’t hurt when I pull it out.

  20. Wow. Seems like I’m not the only one whose worst garden enemy is really just careless neighbours!

  21. Wicked plants ? My list is long – the neighbor’s trident maple ‘s generosity with its aphids & ‘helicopter’ seeds & roots ; the same neighbor’s hemlock with its mesh of surface roots preventing me from putting anything into the ground within ten feet of its dripline; the birches from far away insinuating their way into my compost pile; the star thistle … !

    But all of those are relatively worry-free compared to the wicked-est plant in my yard – spotted spurge. Euphorbia maculata. It grows anywhere & everywhere and its tiny red-spotted green leaves blend into the surface, any surface. Sidewalk cracks, decomposed granite, garden beds ( even through the mulch !), that spot in the yard that is permanently soaked & hopelessly shaded… I pull it, I hoe it, I pour boiling water on it, I paid the kids $8 for every bucket of the stuff they pulled. Now my wallet is empty, the kids bought new toys with their windfall, and I still have tons of the stuff !

    My options at this point ? Either declare it a groundcover & work it into the landscape ( hey, its a native, right ? that’ll work ! ) … or find out if it’s edible & cultivate it.

    Spotted Spurge Spring Rolls, anyone ?

  22. Wicked plants in my garden. A long list in common with other commentators …Bedstraw is insidious, Garlic Mustard is ubiquitous, Black Locust is unrelenting, Norway Maple is deceptively dappling in the hot sun of August, Rosa multiflora is overwhelmingly prolific and disarmingly pretty when in bloom…My personal vote for most Wicked plant in my garden is the Japanese Honeysuckle. Cloying sweet scent, un-killable root system, and strangling vine. It insinuates itself everywhere causing the slow motion destruction of everything it entangles.

  23. The hulking, menacing black walnut tree in our back yard gets the prize.

    The cons:
    – toxic roots which limit what can be grown within its drip line

    – the fruit, which is a little larger than a ping-pong ball, only a lot harder and full of skin staining dye.

    – squirrels really enjoy tossing the aforementioned fruit onto rooftops and heads of passerby.

    – the shade which obliterates all western and southern light in my yard, thereby making it hard to have a vegetable garden.

    The pros:

    – I worked with a guy who told me the nuts were very tasty…once you ran them over with your car to remove the husks, harvested them wearing rubber gloves and roasted them. I’ve never tried and I’m taking his word for it.

    – It is a host plant for the luna moth.

    – The deer do not touch the hostas that grow beneath it. My theory is that the toxin from the tree bothers them.

  24. I have two wicked plants. & I love them as much as all the others together. They have seduced me to their dark side.

    First is the tung tree. While the whole tree is poisonous, the fruit is particularly bad. Still, the fruit & seeds are large & easy to spot & the tree is not particularly fecund, which reduces the probability of anything eating them. Unless you have horses. We have horses. As did the previous owner of this tree, so after she planted it she removed it; it is a rescue tree.

    What can I say, I love this tree. She lives at the top of the driveway, away from all the other trees, so there is no chance of any bits wandering off & when she starts to fruit we put a fine mesh net around her so nothing can get out.

    The other is rain lilies. They are small, sweet & harmless. Unless you are a chicken. Yes, we have chickens, too. Most of the locals plant their tomatoes in cages to keep the poultry out; I buy tomatoes at the farmers stand & cage up the lilies.

    For me, the keys to wickedness is admitting there is a problem & containment. Then I am free to enjoy my vices. & right now, with rain every day here in Florida, they are worth the effort.

  25. My wicked plant story happened last Friday…the full story and pictures are on my blog, here is a (slightly) abbreviated version:

    Before I left for work I made sure to look at the Voodoo Lily. The bud was bursting. Today would be the day. I moved it to the shade so the heat of the sun wouldn’t ruin it. This year I would finally get to see it blooming!

    Fast forward 10 hours…I get home. I’ve got a car full of bags of mulch and dry cleaning to unload. Lila, (our dog) is scratching at the door and wants out! She can’t be trusted, if she sees something more interesting in the street then she’ll dash out. I put her in the back yard and close the gate while I unload the car.

    Funny. I’m done but she isn’t standing at the gate watching me like she always is. I open the gate and still she isn’t running towards me…where is she? That’s when I see her. She is standing next to the Voodoo blossom. It’s broken and she is chomping on something. OMG. I have a faint memory of the word poison. I grab her and run inside, consult the computer and sure enough. All parts of this plant are poisonous! I go back out and piece together the flower. Nothing seems to be missing but there are marks. Teeth marks? Something has been at it.

    Lila seems to be ok. We watch her. We take her back out and put her by the bloom. Food is her middle name and nothing stands between her and food. She isn’t at all interested in the flower. She’d rather play in the grass.

    Thank god she’s fine. All I have is a slightly chewed and deformed flower, but I do have the same slightly grumpy but adorable Chug that I had this morning. I count us lucky and know that next year the Voodoo Lily goes away, out of dog reach, while it blooms its rotten meat scented bloom.

  26. I’m severely allergic to poison ivy and many plants give me dermatitis, but by far my most hated species is Hottuynia cordata, chameleon plant. We planted some in our side yard years ago, and when I saw its thuglike aggressive habit, I started ripping it out.

    Unfortunately my next-door neighbors, whose idea of gardening includes the effortless cultivation of pokeweed, porcelainberry, black walnut seedlings, and other prize specimen, appear to like the houttuynia and let it run rampant in their beds once it made its way over there (about a nanosecond after we planted ours, probably). So it comes back every year, oblivious to my efforts to keep it out (I’ve tried deep edging, pulling, even Roundup, it’s the only thing I have used glyphosate on and it doesn’t even work).

    Wicked indeed.

  27. Privet is my wicked plant. I have 200 l.f. of privet hedge. Normal people yank out privet hedges when they buy the older home. Not me. I had the spouse transplant what we had from one property line to the other. Then I actually paid a landscape company to plant more. (I never hire a landscaper for anything). Why? Becauese it is so appropriate to an early 1920’s landscape. It is a lovely living green fence that provides privacy. In the summer only. That needs sheared every 3 weeks or it looks a mess. So every three weeks I drag out the 100′ extension cord and the electric clippers and go at it. This involves much sweating and swearing. I have to squeeze between the privet and the neighbor’s chainlink fence. And both the hedge and I grow wider with the years. By the time I am finished I look like a fought a herd of rabid house cats.

    Then there is the privet hedge between me and the non-speaking neighbors(who are probably afraid of the crazy garden woman) that is theirs and they never trim (do you have any idea how tall privet can get? That it is actually a vase shaped tree, I mean LARGE shrub). It is too tall to shear, and how stupid would it look to be manicured on one side and wild on the top and other side? But it is devouring my flower beds (did I mention I lined the whole length of each side of my yard next to the privet hedge with a flower border? which means you have to do a little dance around plants when you are shearing and raking up the stuff). So I use my felcos to try to keep it in line in a more natural looking fashion.

    It did make a lovely back drop for prom pictures.

  28. While there are plenty of problem plants in my garden, my gardening year starts out with a full throttle attack on the dandelions ! If I let them go, heaven forbid, then the daisies that are working their way up to the sun will be encased in weeds. So the deer, the star thistle, the poison oak and the creeping everywhere mint can be ignored while the dandelions are eradicated !

  29. Yesterday, I watched “The Happening”, an M. Night Shyamalan movie, where they suspect the plants are releasing toxins that cause people to become disoriented and kill themselves. Really! The plants! Hard to believe, or maybe not? Many a gardener has been driven nearly mad by a noxious weed or two or three that they just can’t get rid of.

    In my garden, the perfectly edible purslane is wicked in how it wants to hog every single inch it can grow on, sucking the nutrients away from my vegetable plants, no doubt. And you can’t leave even a cell of it, it seems, or it will root and continue growing. It will forever be in my garden, taunting me from spring through fall.

  30. My wickeds are my neighbors, on both sides, because I’m SURE they are vegetative. In fact, they have such deep roots, I’m convinced their behinds are permanently attached to their respective couches, thus prohibiting any yardwork. That should qualify them as plants. One has provided me so generously with bindweed, which I’m convinced can grow a foot each time I blink, and ample supplies of garlic mustard and wild garlic. The others have also provided me with bindweed and wild garlic, but the dears, they have also given me the plant that keeps on giving, poison ivy. When I once reached a wee bit through the fence to pull some garlic mustard, I got yelled at. I daren’t touch the poison ivy. And it doesn’t just run under the fence on the ground, it twines through the fence on top of the retaining wall and reaches down to caress me as I work in my border.

    Let me reconsider. They are idiots, and no plant is an idiot. But they are still wicked.

  31. My most hated tree is the Malaluka, or Punk tree as it is known locally. While they stand quite tall and straight along the highway edges here is west central Florida (which is the best and only place for them) I have two in my small backyard that continually shed leaves, then flowers, then seeds and leave a forever mess is the yard. Because of the shade I can grow very little back there. About the only saving grace is that their leaves biodegrade quickly, but I doubt if they leave much beneficial behind. I understand they were introduced to the Everglades and are now slurping up all the water to the detriment of all the other natural flora and fauna. Errrrrgh!!!!!

  32. I have two wicked plants that I seriously believe were put on this earth to teach me patience and tolerance. The first is a massive silver maple in my neighbor’s (slum-lord) yard. It drops small red kernels the perfect size to clog gutters and rain barrels) in the spring. Come June, the helicopter seeds land in my yard and garden by the millions with hopes of repopulating the entire earth.

    The second is an invasive plant called Japanese Knot Weed which spreads thru it’s root system and pops up any where it wishes. Once again, originating from another slum-lord on the other side.

    The challenge is to enjoy the beauty before my tolerance wears out.

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