“These Plants Can Kill”
In March I wrote about the gardens at Alnwick Castle, in Northumberland, and the Duchess of Northumberland’s visionary plan to create classic, yet modern gardens on a large scale. This month, with Halloween just around the corner, I thought it fitting to write about one specific part of her garden, the Poison Garden. You aren’t allowed in without a guide, and you are warned in advance not to touch anything…
The Poison Garden is cut off from the rest of the Castle’s gardens by high stone walls. To enter, you must pass through tall, iron gates, embellished with two sets of skull and crossbones, and words which read, “THESE PLANTS CAN KILL”. Everything in the garden can hurt you in one way or another, from causing a simple stomach ache, to causing a gruesome, agonizing death. The flame shaped beds are edged in Boxwood (the leaves of which cause everything from nausea to respiratory failure if eaten) and contain all manner of plants, a great many of which are ones that we have in our own home gardens. There is Digitalis, (Foxglove), which has been useful in medicine to stabilize an irregular heartbeat, despite the fact that too much of it will stop the heart altogether. There is Nepeta (Catmint), which is said to make humans quarrelsome, as well as act as a sedative. Apparently executioners used to chew on catmint so as to be in the right frame of mind to do their job! There are also Castor Bean plants from which castor oil is made, as is also the deadly poison for which there is no antidote, Ricin.
An enormous specimen of what looks like Queen Anne’s Lace takes up much of one corner. It is Giant Hogweed, the sap from which, if you touch it, will change the molecular structure of your skin so that forevermore, that area, when exposed to ultraviolet light, will act as though it has third degree burns. Next to it is Oleander, a plant which if eaten, can cause gastrointestinal, cardiac, and central nervous system damage. Beside that is the comparatively innocuous stinging nettle which, when touched, simply hurts – A lot. And the list of harmful plants goes on and on, many of which are familiar faces to even the most novice gardener.
As you leave the Poison Garden, you pass a black coffin, under a canopy of ivy (Eating ivy can make your lips and tongue swell, by the way.) In its lid there is a slot for donations towards helping those with drug addictions.
A bit dramatic? Perhaps. But you certainly get the point. It is good to be educated about what is around us, and to do a little research before eating, touching, or burning plant material. Just ask anyone who has burned Poison Ivy and has developed the rash on the lining of their lungs from inhaling the smoke. I, for one, am grateful to know what Giant Hogweed looks like so that I can give it a wide berth should I ever encounter it again. A little knowledge could save someone a really bad day, or worse!