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, deadly nightshade, hemlock and mandrake to great effect. Likewise there have been plenty of unintentional poisonings on record as well.
Cure or Poison Garden?
You might think at first that you’re walking into an apothecary garden. So many of the plants are familiar medicinal plants grown in our own gardens. For example foxgloves, lungwort and hellebores to name just a few.
I’d best describe the garden as being a ‘Pharmakon’ Garden. 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 a lot!
Buxus lines the borders though the leaf trimmings are toxic. You will also find the aphrodisiac but deadly angels trumpets along with the narcotic castor oil plants and rhubard.
Keep off the Grass!
You'll also find the class A drugs Cocaine, Marijuana and Opium growing under licence from the Home Office in the garden. Tobacco also is grown in the garden. Smoking the dried leaves is the biggest killer in the world. Then there's the tea plants and their 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. 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 do you have a cherry laurel hedge - Prunus laurocerasus. I wonder if you actually realise how dangerous the pruned leaves are?
Our guide told us of one couple who cut their laurel hedge. They filled the prunings into refuse bags. Then placed the bags in their car and 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. It's similar to 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.