Creepy Botanical Reads for Halloween


I picked up each of these books without realizing they had some devious connection to the botanical world.  Imagine my delight when I discovered:


"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.  I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance.  I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.  I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise.  I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom.  Everyone else in my family is dead."

Yes!  Don't you all go rushing to the bookstore at once.  There's more:

"Constance can put her hand upon a bewildering array of deadly substances without ever leaving home; she could feed you a sauce of poison hemlock, a member of the parsley family which produces immediate paralysis and death when eaten.  She might have made a marmalade of the lovely thornapple or baneberry, she might have tossed the salad with Holcus lanatus, called velvet grass, and rich in hydrocyanic acid."

It's Shirley Jackson's classic We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with a new introduction by Jonathan Lethem. De-lish.


And then!  Alan Bradley's wonderful The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, also about a young girl with a taste for murder.  Eleven year-old Flavia de Luce has a chemistry set and a working knowledge of poisonous plants. By the time we get to page 12 she's distilling the urushiol from poison ivy and adding it to her sister's lipstick.

And as she's trying to figure out what poison a murderer might have used, she says to herself:

"Then there was curare.  It, too, had an almost instant effect and again, the victim died within minutes by asphyxiation. But curare could not kill by ingestion; to be fatal, it had to be injected.  Besides that, who in the English countryside–besides me, of course–would be likely to carry curare in his kit?"

Good stuff.  Go check it out.


  1. Not having read any of these books and not knowing whether stupid or murderous actions get their rightful come-uppance, my question is: Do kids really need this information before they reach the age of sense and social responsibility? I am not sure I would have liked my 14 year old to have a working knowledge of poisonous plants.

  2. Interesting question! First of all, these are not children’s books, they’re for adults. They just happen to have young-ish female protagonists.

    But trust me, 14 year-olds can learn all this and more on the interwebs. I am astonished at the botanical knowledge of teenagers when it comes to legal plants that give a cheap high.

    Also: teenagers are exposed to plenty of information on how to murder a person through television, movies, and books. We’re not going to keep Poe from them, are we?

  3. i totally second that sentiment, amy–my first thought to that was, “why would any reasonably well-adjusted 14 year-old be any more dangerous with this knowledge than without it?” i don’t believe knowing about this will make them more likely to kill someone–they might put some poison ivy in someone’s fancy panties but they could have gotten that idea from watching “the magdalene sisters.” anyway, that’s another topic. i think the younger kids are when they are taught which plants are dangerous and why, the better. at least that’s my approach…and i so hope my kids don’t end up on COPS because i am completely wrong about this.

  4. Missy, Henry Mitchell made the same point in one of his columns in the WaPo (way back when; it’s probably anthologised in one of his books as well): the sooner children learn that not all plants are our dear little friends, the safer everyone is (especially the kids). I think Mr & Mrs Mitchell reared sons who have so far not appeared on an episode of COPS, so perhaps there’s something to that.

    Thanks for the book references; I’ll have to hit up the library this weekend.

  5. Shirley Jackson authored “The Haunting of Hill House” — inspiration for one of the scariest movies ever, the original B&W “The Haunting.”

    I read “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” when I was in high school in the 70s and remember being so creeped out by it (in a good way) that I couldn’t sleep in the same room as the book. The little poem in the book still rattles around in my skull.

  6. Thanks for the creepy book suggestions. The thought of a little girl distilling urushiol to put in her sister’s is just disturbing. The rash is bad enough anywhere, but it’s truly miserable on the lips. Did you know that urushiol is also present in mangoes? Perhaps I’ll just stick to the first book. 🙂

    As for equipping kids with knowledge of how to do harm, if they want that information, it’s not hard to find. The best thing to do is also equip them with good morals and respect. My two year old doesn’t always understand the importance of following directions even when she doesn’t want to, but she does know to listen when I tell her to she’s too close to poison plants.

  7. hmmmm…. my 11-year-old daughter swiped my copy of Amy Stewart’s “Wicked Plants” & nearly devoured it. Should I be worried ??

  8. It’s been true for some time that kids, adjusted or otherwise, can find this info and more in libraries (even school libraries) and the internet.

    I’d feel comforted, though, by the fact that if teens are happening on this info in literature, it’s likely they are reading other things as well – things which might give them a more balanced perspective on life.

    I just ordered the Jackson book for good Halloween reading…

  9. “Sweetness” is a marvelous book. Been enjoying flashbacks since I finished it a few weeks ago. Review appearing soon on my blog. Keeping information from kids doesn’t mean they won’t find out anyhow. And if it seems forbidden, then they are even more likely to search it out. The little girl in Sweetness solves a murder; she doesn’t commit one. And I’d plan something nasty for them, if my sisters were like hers.

  10. “Sweetness” is a wonderful read! I’m trying to figure out how I ever missed that particular Shirley Jackson. It’s on my list and I am going to make a real effort to get Wicked Plants back from my neighbor who borrowed it while she was laid up for a couple of weeks.

  11. Just because it is accessable doesn’t mean it should be. The real question isn’t “Do my kids already have the ability to find this information?” but “How will this information affect them?” And then the reaction, “What do we do to keep our children educated, happy and balanced?” The answer probably isn’t to ban books.

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