|Behind locked gates entwined with wrought iron ivy leaves|
While at Alnwick Gardens in Northumberland, England you can visit the hallucinogenic and intoxicating Poison Garden. Behind those very imposing and sinister looking black padlocked gates marked with skulls and crossbones are some of the most toxic plants from down through history and folklore. Many a murderer has used potions made with Henbane – Hyoscyamus niger, Deadly Nightshade – Atropa belladonna, Hemlock- Conium maculatum and mandrake – Mandragora officinarum to great effect. Likewise there have been plenty of unintentional poisonings on record as well.
The garden was opened in 2005 and is inspired by the European Poison Garden in Padua, Italy.
Cure or Poison?
You might think at first that you’re walking into an apothecary garden as so many of the plants are familiar medicinal plants grown in our own gardens such as foxgloves – Digitalis purpurea, Lungwort – Pulmonaria vulgaris and Christmas Roses – Helleborus niger to name just a few.
I’d best describe the garden as being a ‘Pharmakon’ Garden as it’s a paradox of plants that can act both as a remedy and a poison…..depending on whether you take just a little or alot!
|A tunnel of Hedera helix ‘Hibernica’ in the background while in the foreground is Juniperus communis ‘repanda’ with Aquilegia growing through it with Mandragora officinarum – Mandrake |
thanks to the Poison Garden for letting me know that it’s Vitex agnus castus – the Chaste tree which is reputedly an anaphrodisiac bathed in sunshine behind the creeping conifer.
Buxus sempervirens lines the borders though not for long as it’s in the process of being removed due to box blight and it’s the leaf trimmings that are toxic.
Then there’s Vinca major and it’s considered as a poison as it’s used in chemotherapy treatment.
|Ricinus communis – Castor Oil plant – Ricin with Pulsatilla vulgaris – Pasque flower|
But in amongst the supposedly aphrodisiac but deadly Angels Trumpets – Brugmansia suaveolens at the entrance, the Castor Oil plants – Ricinus communis and Rhubard – Rheum x hybridum are grown the narcotics too ………..and it wasn’t a bird that dropped those seeds!
|The narcotics – Class A drugs allowed to be grown for educational purposes|
The class A drugs – cocaine – Erythroxulum coca, marijuana – Cannabis sativa and opium Papaver somniferum are allowed to be grown under licence from the Home Office.
|Seedheads from the Opium poppies|
You’ll also be surprised to discover that the biggest killer in the world is also grown in the garden – tobacco – Nicotiana sylvestris (smoking the dried leaves) along with tea – Camelia sinensis (caffeine addiction).
Pick Your Poison?
Only guided tours are allowed and everyone is warned before they enter not to touch, taste or smell any of the plants. No one is allowed to stray from the group and no one is allowed to get too close to them either.
On the half term holidays in October I visited Alnwick Gardens and the Poison Garden was the first thing on the map I just had to visit though there wasn’t much poison in flower other than the autumn crocus Colchicum autumnale. Our guide took us around the gardens telling us stories about how particular plants have poisoned people in the past and what those deaths would have been like. Gruesome for sure when you hear how some of these plants affect the body.
I don’t want to spoil the garden tour for anyone thinking of visiting but since I know so many that have cherry laurel hedges – Prunus laurocerasus ………I wonder if you actually realise how dangerous the prunings are?
|Our guide telling us about the dangers of laurel hedge clippings|
Our guide told us of one couple who cut their laurel hedge and filled the prunings into refuse bags, placed the bags in their car and then went for lunch. By the time they got back to the car the sun had been shining in through the windows and had heated up the plastic bags. When they opened the car door the atmosphere inside was full of cyanide….which seemingly has a strong bitter almond odour……. inhale enough of it and your nervous system is starved of oxygen. Thankfully they didn’t get into the car. It’s certainly not a plant you want to put through a shredder, burn nor use as a fresh mulch or worse still mistake for a bay leaf – Laurus nobilis when cooking.
- External link : The Poison Garden by John Roberston (former warden and consultant at Alnwick’s Poison Garden)