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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 10th August 2011

An interesting blog post about the Blarney Castle Poison Garden appeared a few days ago but I’ve only just seen it.

I feel a little puff of pride whenever I read something complimentary about that garden since I had a small role in its creation. In spring 2010, I was contacted by the head gardener at Blarney who asked me to have a look at the list of plants he intended to include.

Buxus sempervirens, box

Buxus sempervirens, box

From that, we exchanged a number of emails about the merits or demerits of different plants and I offered some thoughts about making sure the layout could cope with the number of visitors. At the Alnwick Garden, for example, the idea of the design was to have flame-shaped beds with Buxus sempervirens planted around the edges. Unfortunately, for some of the beds, the crowds of visitors tended to step across the ends and the box bushes at the points of the beds suffered as a result.

At Blarney, they decided not to have guided tours but to use information boards adjacent to the each plant giving some of the stories about it. I was happy to say that they could use any of the information from this site and the pictures in that post I linked to show that they did use quite a lot of the material here.

If you’ve looked at the link you may have seen the additional sign on the Cannabis sativa saying it has ‘been seized by the Garda (Irish police)’. The story of that plant gives an example of the difference in character between the Irish and the British.

When I saw the first list of plants proposed for Blarney I saw the cannabis and passed on the Alnwick experience where it took them something like three years to get permission to grow it. Because there was quite a time between planning for the Poison Garden and getting it completed and ready to open, this delay didn’t prevent the Cannabis sativa being grown during the first summer.

I recall warning Adam, the head gardener at Blarney Castle, that there could be a delay so they should apply for permission to grow it as soon as possible. I was quite surprised when the first promotional information I saw, that summer, spoke about the garden boasting a cannabis plant and, also, Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, which, I was surprised to discover, is illegal to grow in Ireland.

I’ll divert, briefly, from my story to consider this prohibition because it does indicate that some laws are so bizarre as to be ridiculous. In Eire, it is not illegal to sell the seeds of Papaver somniferum and most garden centres do. It is, though, an offence to germinate those seeds but a great many people don’t realise this and grow opium poppies in their Irish gardens without a second thought. I can only assume that the legality of selling seeds has to do with the difficulty of defining the difference between poppy seeds used on bakery products and seeds that can be used to grow a plant from which it is, theoretically, possible to extract opium.

I say, theoretically, because I can’t imagine anyone with a serious interest in obtaining heroin going to the bother of growing enough poppy plants and investing in the processing equipment to do so. There are people who claim that the poppies grown in the British Isles don’t contain the morphine alkaloid from which heroin is produced but I have spoken to a farmer who grows poppies commercially in Hampshire who, clearly, disagrees with that claim.

The reason I came to know that growing Papaver somniferum in Eire is illegal is because, in October, the Irish police raided the Blarney Castle gardens and removed both the Cannabis sativa and the Papaver somniferum. The raid seems to have been politically driven. Blarney Castle, obviously, made no secret of having these plants from the early summer and, in fact, there is a Garda station just yards from the castle entrance. In October, however, someone wrote a piece for an Irish newspaper railing against the idea that there were different laws for different people and citing Blarney Castle’s illegal plants as an example of the privilege enjoyed by the rich.

When I enquired about how they came to be growing the plants without permission, Adam’s reply showed the character difference I referred to above. Blarney Castle applied for permission to grow the plants and, as they didn’t receive a refusal, they assumed it would be OK and proceeded to plant them.

I do like the notion that anything that hasn’t been actually refused has been approved. I think that state of mind has a much broader application than the growing of psychoactive plants.