2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’Gardens: The Alnwick Poison Garden

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“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…

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Some of the most toxic plants are kept in cages.

      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.

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   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!

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2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: Alnwick Garden, UK

A modern take on the traditional garden

   

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The formal garden at the top of the Grand Cascade

     About 35 miles from the Scottish border lies the town of Alnwick (pronounced “AN-ik”), a picturesque little market town on the River Aln with a population of approximately 9,000. It is also the site of Alnwick Castle and Gardens, which has been the home of the Percy family, (eventually given the title of Northumberland), for over 700 years. The current Duke attained the title upon the premature death of his elder brother, and thus suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in charge of 125,000 acres, comprising some 500 farms and 700 houses. The garden had once (200+ years ago) been glorious, but was now a shadow of its former glory, and as the Duke was busy learning about the running of the Estate, he asked his wife if she would like to do over one of the gardens. Although he thought she would plant a couple of roses and call it a day, the Duchess (who is quite young; 59 now, 38 when she started) embarked on an ambitious and visionary plan to turn the land into a garden that would be classic and yet use all that modern technology had to offer. It was not to be a private garden, either, but to be open for everyone to enjoy. She interviewed designers and began to raise money, and now, about 8 years and millions of £ later, the garden is being called one of the most important gardens of modern times. 

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     Often, when in beautiful gardens, I find myself wishing that the other visitors would all disappear so that I can fully enjoy what is around me. Quite unexpectedly, during my visit to Alnwick, I found the opposite to be true, as it is designed for people, and people are part of it. There are fountain gardens, some of which encourage children and those who are children at heart to play in them, and there are formal rose gardens, and walled gardens bursting with perennials of all colors, shapes and sizes. There is even a Poison Garden (more about that in another writing), enclosed in a high wall and accessible only with a guide through iron gates marked “These Plants Can Kill”. The Grand Cascade is worth the trip alone. Framed by Hornbeam pergolas that form tunnels that you can walk through, the water in the cascade tumbles down 21 weirs, as fountains jet water in intricate patterns, sometimes soaking the spectators! The garden is open year round, and even the Grand Cascade plays a part in the winter, as it is carefully monitored so that there is only just a skin of ice on it, which, when lit, creates a magical effect.

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Did I mention that there’s a huge tree house, complete with restaurant?
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And a bamboo maze!

     I was so impressed by the garden, and its accessibility to all, that I wrote to the Duchess of Northumberland, and was pleasantly surprised to get a long, thoughtful letter in return. “So much has changed in garden design over the past 16 years since I began the project.”, she wrote, “In those days children weren’t welcome in gardens and what I was planning was unusual. Nowadays most newly designed gardens consider not only children but also families and local communities, which is as it should be!”

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The Grand Cascade
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Inside the Hornbeam walk along the side of the Grand Cascade
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A July border
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Alnwick Castle, in its Capability Brown setting. (Some of Harry Potter was filmed here!)
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The Gardeners Cottage
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Inside the vegetable garden

    The Alnwick Garden is an inspirational place, and I highly recommend a visit. Another time I will tell you about the Alnwick Poison Garden, which is certainly very interesting, although hopefully not inspirational!