Largo (The Big, Bad Book of Beasts: The World's Most Curious Creatures, 2013, etc.) offers an alphabetical guide to botanical oddities.
The author succeeds admirably in his stated intent to provide a serendipitous mix of “fascinating folklore of the past, with descriptions, life cycles, advice on cultivation, and the benefits these plants provide.” Largo begins with artemisia absinthium, or absinthe, whose sap was used as a last-ditch remedy for tapeworms by Egyptians as early as 1500 B.C. In the 19th century, valued for its hallucinogenic and supposed aphrodisiac properties, it was added to spirits and became the favored drink of artists such as Vincent van Gogh. In a later entry, the author traces knowledge of the medicinal use of aloe vera—recognized for its anti-inflammatory and healing properties today—to an Egyptian papyrus dating back to 2000 B.C. Largo also relates how the black-eyed Susan, an American wildflower, was used by some Native Americans to treat earaches. Archaeological evidence establishes that the Chinese grew cannabis 12,000 years ago, and even the seemingly boring carrot has a fascinating history. Its name is based on its shape and is traceable to “the Indo-European root ker (horn), due to its hornlike appearance.” The carrot's close relatives include coriander, fennel and parsnip, and “in ancient times, carrots were actually favored for its aromatic leaves and seeds,” not for the domesticated root we eat today. Largo has fun with garlic, the supposed “vampire killer” that was also thought to ward off bubonic plague. Near the end of the alphabet, the author informs us that the name of witch hazel—still used to soothe rashes—derives from the Old English word for pliant and bears no relation to witches. Zubrowka, an aromatic plant used to flavor Polish vodka, ends this romp through botanical lore.
An entertaining, irreverent look at the ABCs of botany.