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Episode 320

Stalking Wild Clams, Orchids, and Toxic Plants

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Posted by Mary Ann

Langdon Cook writes about a part of the world few of us will ever see. This mushroom gathering business is really like a treasure hunt, isn’t it? It appeals to a very primitive part of us – find something cool and undiscovered, pick it up.

Cook has explored this territory before with his 2009 book “Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager.” This book was described by one reviewer as “Part memoir, part cookbook, part field guide for the adventurous gourmand.” Clamming, fishing, berrypicking, beer brewing, oyster harvesting – Cook does it all, and enjoys it all. And, of course, mushroom picking, which led to the new book.

One book Cook owes something to in his pursuit of rare things, and his stories of the eccentric characters who hunt them, is “The Orchard Thief” by Susan Orlean. We have had Orlean on “Well Read” for her wonderful book “Rin Tin Tin,” but it’s worth remembering that Orlean pioneered the approach of a good writer finding and latching on to people engaged in an obsessive and possibly illegal hunt for something that they love.

The subject of “The Orchid Thief” was John Laroche, a man who, along with two Seminole Indian assistants, was caught red-handed emerging from a Florida plant and wildlife preserve with 200 species of rare orchids. He was planning to clone them for sale to orchid collectors. You know those small, quirky, weird articles in the paper that catch your eye? Orlean read a short newspaper piece about Laroche, and a best-selling book was born. Like most collectors, orchid collectors are a very eccentric bunch, and like mushroom hunters, they go to any length to find the rare treasures they covet.

Another book Cook owes a debt to is “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” by Euell Gibbons. It’s hard to believe that this book was actually first published in 1962! Gibbons had a hard time getting a publisher interested, but once he did, it was a huge hit – you can tell it had an impact because it was relentlessly parodied. Well, never mind. Gibbons was an advocate of finding nutritious but neglected plants and utilizing them in the kitchen – lamb’s quarters, rose hips, dandelion shoots – he was a pioneer in hunting, gathering and seeking out the most nutritious of plants.

Now I want to mention three books by an author I really like, Amy Stewart, someone else who has changed the way we think about plants.

Stewart’s breakout book was 2007’s “Flower Confidential.” Stewart went behind the scenes to document the worldwide market in flowers, a dazzling and unsettling business where you can buy a boquet of roses at your local florist or grocery store that has traveled halfway around the world to get there, and where hypridizers will work long and hard to come up with a popular new flower such as the “Stargazer” lily. She looks at the ethics of tinkering with nature, with using pesticides to grow flowers, and the weirdness of breeding flowers who may look stunning but which have lost some of their essence, such as their beautiful smell. This book will make you think. For me, it has propelled me to my local farmers’ market to buy my flowers there.

Another highly entertaining Stewart book was 2009’s “Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities.” This book is about….you guessed it – poison plants! Plants that paralyze. Plants that stop the heart. I wouldn’t be surprised if this book has become a reference for countless mystery writers, searching for new and inventive ways to bump off their victims.

Finally, I would be remiss I didn’t mention “The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks,” which came out this year. Stewart looks at the herbs, flowers, trees, fruits, and fungi that humans have contrived to transform into alcohol. Wine starts with grapes, beer starts with hops, gin starts with juniper berries, absinthe starts with a plant called artemesia. This is a fascinating book, though it may cause you to want to kick back and enjoy a cocktail. Accompanied by a good book, of course.

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