Botany Tour For The Book Fair: Stories From Michael Largo

Nov 18, 2014

Michael Largo in front of a Blue Agave, which is used to make tequila. The agave blooms once, for three days just before it dies.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Say you walk into an office building. On the reception desk is a nice, lush, green-leafed plant with white dots on it. You think, “how nice and outdoorsy.”

Chances are it's a deathly, toxic plant called a "dumb cane."

That's one of the tidbits included in Michael Largo's most recent publication, "The Big, Bad Book of Botany." It’s an encyclopedia-style book about botany sprinkled with surprising, funny and historical tales of plants.

With his pine-tree tattoo, Largo takes us on a mini tour of Pinecrest Gardens where he points out the plants in South Florida that have unusual stories.

Angel trumpets
Credit Creative Commons via Flickr / Tanaka Juuyoh (https://flic.kr/p/7NLYWH)

He explains that in college, he worked as a nature guide in New York. There, he would have to get kids interested in what was happening in and among the plants on these walks. Telling stories was one way he could get kids to look out for the "conversations" that were happening between the plants. By that, he meant the various ways plants fight for sunlight, space, and pollinators. Poison, thievery, and seduction were all tricks the plants employed.

Here are a few examples from the book:

Angel Trumpet: "Beauty is often deceptive, and sometimes the prettiest things prove the most deadly. ... All parts of the angel trumpet, from the roots, the stalks, stems, and leaves to the flowers, are extremely poisonous. As result, even planting the angel trumpet is illegal in some communities."

Bleeding hearts
Credit Creative Commons via Flickr / dfbphotos (https://flic.kr/p/9CFW8B)

Bleeding Heart: "The heart shape in the flowers is so clearly defined that romantic legends and folklore about its origin abound. The most prevalent tale goes like this: Once a young man perused a maiden, but she shunned his repeated advances. He bore her gift after gift to persuade her to change her mind, but she refused to return his love. Alas, the hopeless young lover pulled out his dagger and stabbed himself in the heart. Where his body fell, the first bleeding heart flower bloomed."

Bamboo
Credit Creative Commons via Flickr / Rebecca Siegel (https://flic.kr/p/dYLRud)

Bamboo: "Most bamboo will bloom only at intervals of 65 or 120 years. When they do produce flowers (as well as a massive amount of seeds), bamboo can cause a sort of ecological havoc. Rats become suddenly abundant and cities or town close to these native forest become overrun with rodents and disease."

Cypress
Credit Creative Commons via Flickr / Duane Burdick (https://flic.kr/p/8bCz7p)

  Cypress: "A boy names Cyparisus was out hunting one day when he accidently killed one of Apollo's sacred stags. Though Apollo was outraged and about to seek revenge, the boy pleaded for forgiveness. In the end, Apollo reluctantly showed mercy, turning his dead stag into a tree and proclaiming it a monument to grief." 

Sandbox Tree
Credit Creative Commons via Flickr / Barry Stock (https://flic.kr/p/dxak1s)

Sandbox Tree: "The tree's fruit is a large, pumpkin-shaped seed capsule, which explodes violently when ripe. This launches the seeds all around at incredible distances of 300 feet and at a speed of 160 miles per hour. The fruit of this plant is literally a bomb!"