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The Alnwick Poison Garden by Jane Canaway

Narrelle Harris non fiction Stuff Sherlock would know

Happy 2017 from IP to all our readers! And we think it never hurts to start the new year with ideas of how to poison someone...

Today's post is by guest blogger, Jane Canaway, a freelance writer from Melbourne, who visited The Alnwick Garden in Northumberland, UK, last year.  The original Alnwick garden dates from the 18th century. Canon Sherlock wouldn't have visited the poison garden, which wasn't established until 2005, but he would have been very familiar with the plants it contains.

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The Alnwick Poison Garden by Jane Canaway

The Poison Garden gateIt’s all a bit Harry Potter, with the skull and crossbones and snakes entwined on the imposing black metal gates. Beside the entrance is a low timber, hexagonal shack – complete with grassy, earthen roof, central chimney and goat’s skull above the door – and it looks for all the world as if Hagrid has just popped out to feed his dragons.

But the arch between the pillars says it all – The Poison Garden – and, to reinforce the message, both gates are emblazoned with the words: These Plants Can Kill.

Alnwick Garden has many drawcards, but the Poison Garden is what sets it apart.

It’s the brainchild of the current Duchess of Northumberland, whose home, Alnwick Castle, is next door and also opens to visitors. The castle, built about 700 years ago, is a mecca for would-be wizards and witches because of its starring role as Hogwarts in the first two Potter films (it has hosted scores of other movies over the past four decades, but somehow these pale into insignificance).

The garden is a result of her vision, built on a neglected site that revealed six former gardens underneath; the castle itself still enjoys views over a landscape set out by ‘Capability’ Brown. With a passionate team, she has created a modern masterpiece designed to provide something of interest for every age group, all types of gardeners, and every season: There’s the dramatic grand cascade, fed from a rivulet that runs through the walled ornamental garden above, and which is flanked by a cherry orchard on one side of the hill and a rose garden on the other, plus a bamboo labyrinth and serpent garden with gravity-defying water sculptures, not to mention all manner of children’s activities in the vegetable garden, a tree-house restaurant, and the prerequisite plant centre, garden shop, and cafés.

Entry to the poison garden is strictly forbidden without a guide, but a roster of gardeners on permanent duty means you rarely have to wait more than 10-15 minutes to go in – which is just long enough to explore that little apothecary’s ‘hovel’ at the gate. On a shelf inside the open door is a rat on a human skull and, as your eyes adjust to the red-and -green gloom inside, more hocus-pocus takes shape on the shelving and fur-covered benches around the central fireplace – a pair of crows, a cat with a rat, and different-sized bottles of lotions and potions. I’d love to know how they mow the roof, though, because a couple of oak seedlings have taken root and should prove an interesting addition as they grow.

The gaggle of middle-aged Scottish ladies we’re waiting with – friends from a garden club – are in high spirits and have everyone smiling by the time our guide introduces himself and gives us our pre-entry spiel.

“Every plant you will see is harmful and many are deadly, so no sniffing, touching or eating,” says Gary, whose fresh-faced looks belie his plant wisdom.

“And there’s security cameras at the gate, so if your husbands fall sick next week, we’ll be able to track you down,” he adds, cementing an instant rapport with the Scots, who shriek with laughter.

However, as the gates open and you step inside, what strikes you first is the ordinariness of the garden. It’s not all black tulips and deadly nightshade, just pretty cottage plants that you might expect to find in any English garden.

Designed by Jacques and Peter Wirtz, the layout is simple and effective; flame-shaped beds edged with (poisonous) box hedging lick at visitors’ feet as you follow the brick pathway to explore, while the garden is bordered by a warm, sandstone wall on the hill side and a ivy-clad tunnel on the other. Apart from creating a mysterious alley – just long and dark enough to give children a thrill, and with port-holed views across the garden beyond – this tunnel also acts as a clever conduit to guide exiting visitors, so each group has the garden to themselves as the last group leaves.   

The first plant we come to is Laburnum, or Golden Chain, whose cascading racemes of butter-yellow pea flowers are the staple diet of some butterflies, but which contains cytosine in all parts of the plant, causing humans sleepiness, vomiting, diarrhoea, convulsions and, if consumed in excess, death.

Opposite is a small clump of stinging nettles – not a normal garden inclusion, due to its weedy appearance and famously stinging leaves but which is, ironically, quite edible, showing you can’t judge a plant by its looks.

This theme continues as we delve deeper; it seems the prettier the plant, the more deadly it can be.

Visiting in spring, there’s a lovely bed of narcissus in bloom, but Gary tells us chilling tales of housewives who’ve unwittingly hospitalised their families by mistaking its bulbs for onions.

“Roman soldiers reportedly carried a daffodil bulb with them to commit suicide if they were captured,” he says.

It’s one of the few stories he tells that doesn’t involve women doing away with husbands or wreaking revenge on unfaithful lovers.

By the Aconite, the pretty blue Monkshood, we hear of a jilted girlfriend doing just that. It was also used to poison enemy water and arrowheads in ancient Europe, and its was the official poison on the island of Ceos, where it was used to dispatch all those deemed no longer useful to society, especially old men.

At this point, some of the white-haired gentlemen in the group are starting to look a little nervous.

Further along there’s Hellebore (Christmas Rose) whose roots are an emetic; Laurel, which is deadly if inhaled; Arum lilies, high in calcium oxalate; Lily of the Valley, which can slow your heart to stopping point; Datura, which gently sends victims into a quiet, potentially fatal sleep; and lovely Columbines (Aquilegia, or Granny’s Bonnets), related to Monkshood, which can cause gastroenteritis and heart palpitations.

There are also plants that can cure or kill, depending on the dose.

“Our ancestors knew these plants intimately, but we’ve lost our connection with nature,” Gary rues.

Speaking of Rue, the herb Ruta graveolens fits into this category: it is used in homeopathy to heal sprains and is listed by Shakespeare as an important element of tussie-mussies – carried to ward off the plague, as well as guarding against fleas – but it is also a powerful emetic, especially dangerous to pregnant women, and with sap that causes blisters or dermatitis.

It’s in a league with foxgloves, which offer life-saving digitalis to those with heart conditions, but can also kill; another is Salix (Willow), which has brought us aspirin but is toxic in excess; Pennyroyal, so lovely to smell but not to be used in cooking like other mints; and there’s Rosemary and some lavenders, which are beneficial in many ways, but whose essential oils should be avoided by pregnant women, and people with epilepsy or high blood pressure.

Some of the worst offenders are grown under giant cages – just in case a revenge-seeking visitor is tempted – including Monkshood and Cannabis, or at least the spot where the heat-loving Cannabis would be if the cool climate didn’t keep killing it off. 

The garden has a special license to grow Cannabis, as it does Coca, from which cocaine is derived. These plants – as well as opium poppies – are included because of the deadly effects they can have through drug addiction, and the garden, which is set up as a charitable trust, makes a point of supporting rehab programs for addicts and prisoners, many of whom end up in jail through drug-related crimes.

Let’s hope no visitors end up on one of the horticulture programs Alnwick runs in jails, after being inspired by the garden’s deadly beauties. 

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For less poisonous plants local to Melbourne, see Plants of Melbourne's Western Plains, which Jane helped publish: Plants of Melbourne's Western Plains


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