Wicked plants darken Lauritzen Gardens

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May 2nd, 2012

Omaha, NE – Lauritzen Gardens is showcasing the darker side of nature with its latest exhibit.

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The entrance to the Wicked Plants exhibit introduces the feeling of a "mad botanist's greenhouse." (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“When you step inside, it gives the air of being in, like a mad botanist’s greenhouse.” Mia Jenkins is the Marketing Director at Lauritzen Gardens. She showed me around the gardens’ latest exhibit, Wicked Plants: Colorful Characters from the Dark Side of the Plant World. It’s a collection of toxic, hallucinogenic and carnivorous plants and flowers, on display through May 13th.

White Snakeroot is the innocent-looking plant that killed Abe Lincoln's mother. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“They’re very interesting, and they just kind of give you a new take on the botanical world,” Jenkins said. “I call them our botanical bad guys.”

The exhibit is based on the book by author Amy Stewart, Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities. And it does include the plant that killed the early President’s mother. Nancy Hanks Lincoln died from “milk sickness,” after drinking unpasteurized milk from a cow that had eaten the White Snakeroot plant.

Dr. Violet Mandrake, the mad scientist behind the Wicked Plant greenhouse, is housed (in what appears to be papier mache) in the back of the exhibit, along with her prized Venus Fly Trap. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“And there’s other plants like Hemlock which killed Socrates, things like castor bean, which is one of the most deadly poisons,” she said. “Ricin comes from castor bean, and that’s been used with Russian spies, lots of notorious stories from that plant as well.”

The White Snakeroot is a simple, green plant with pale flowers. Pointing out a collection of more dangerous-looking cacti and succulents, Jenkins noted the prickly plants are ones people instinctively stay away from. But, she said, some of the deadliest plants are deceptively pretty – and commonly found.

“Like you have Cyclamen, which is a very common house plant,” she said. “You often see it in floral shops and grocery store floral departments, especially around the holidays. They have beautiful flowers but they also produce a substance that can cause nausea and even paralysis.”

Jenkins emphasized plants are usually only toxic if they’re ingested, and it typically takes quite a heavy dose to cause damage. But many commonly-found plants can be toxic to pets – which are more inclined to chew on them. And other plants are just plain off-putting to any species. Like the corpse flower.

“It has a smell like rotten flesh… It takes a while for them to bloom but when they do, you really know that they’re blooming.”

The exhibit includes a collection of carnivorous plants, including the infamous Venus Fly Trap, which is quite a bit smaller than generally depicted in pop culture. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

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