Meet Mother Nature’s wicked side

Plants that kill, choke, and paralyze

Les Lutz, director of horticulture at Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich, stands in the garden he created of deadly dangerous plants.
Les Lutz, director of horticulture at Heritage Museums & Gardens in Sandwich, stands in the garden he created of deadly dangerous plants.

SANDWICH — Visitors to the Heritage Museum & Gardens are immediately struck by the beauty in bloom all around them. But this year, through Sept. 1, they can see — in a fun yet educational setting — some of the perils nature presents, perhaps in their own backyards.

The interactive, family-friendly exhibit, “Wicked Plants,” showcases replicas of more than 100 potentially dangerous plants, including a wildflower that can cause choking, a shrub that causes paralysis, and a flowering vine that triggers hallucinations and seizures.

Set in the “home” of the fictitious Nightshade family, the exhibit presents a different theme — and different category of dangers to learn about — in each room. For example, the dining room showcases the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” display, where each of 10 place settings has a riddle about everyday food — like corn, rhubarb, or celery — that, under certain circumstances, can be hazardous to one’s health. Visitors read a riddle written on a plate, then search the placemat with a polarized magnifying lens for the answer.


The “Parlor of Toxicodendrons” is filled with plants that cause itchy, ugly rashes.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In the library, a sampling of psychotropic plants — including tobacco, marijuana, opium, and cocaine — are on display, along with several computers, on which visitors can take quizzes that focus on the harmful effects of the plants.

“It’s really interesting. It’s scientifically based and nonjudgmental; it just lets you know the facts,” said Jennifer Madden, the Heritage Museums & Gardens director of collections and exhibitions. “It’s about how these plants interact with the brain.”

A fun-house mirror in the room “mimics the visual disturbance that you might experience if you interact with some of these plants,” she said.

The exhibit, which comes from the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville, is inspired by Amy Stewart’s bestseller “Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities.”


This is the exhibit’s only stop in New England. In September, it will relocate to Las Vegas, before moving on to other destinations.

While the plants inside the exhibition hall are replicas, Les Lutz, the Heritage Museums & Gardens’ director of horticulture, has created a real-life “Wicked Plants Garden” outside that features some of the deadly vegetation showcased inside.

“I went through the book and found which [plants] were available and which ones had ornamental value, then designed the garden,” said Lutz.

At the entrance to the indoor exhibit, visitors are greeted by two large urns with real-life Venus flytraps — a favorite with visitors, Lutz said.

The site, with 100 acres of beautiful gardens, also has a labyrinth, miles of nature trails, and Hidden Hollow, an outdoor nature exploration center that features a kid-centric, multi-tiered tree house.


Car buffs will want to check out the “Driven to Collect” exhibit, a permanent collection of antique and classic automobiles, which like the “Wicked Plants” exhibit is indoors, making Heritage Museums & Gardens good rain or shine.

Stewart will give a presentation here about “Wicked Plants” that draws on history, medicine, science, and legend on June 22 from 3:30-5:30 p.m.. Tickets are $15 for members, $30 for nonmembers. Following the presentation, she and Lutz will take people on a walking tour that showcases more than a dozen diabolical botanicals throughout the property’s gardens.

HERITAGE MUSEUMS & GARDENS 67 Grove St., Sandwich, 508-888-3300.

Juliet Pennington can be reached at