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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday, 26th June 2015

It’s been several months since I last sat down to write a full blog post. There have been topics that very nearly tempted me back but, in the end, I felt I could deal with them well enough via a photo added to a tweet. I did post a mini-blog about the hysterical coverage of Aconitum napellus but that was just a quickie to try and balance the nonsense being spouted elsewhere.

What’s brought me back to a full piece and pictures is the time I spent at Bryngwyn Hall. Bryngwyn Hall is a small (as such places go) country estate in mid-Wales. It is home to Auriol Marchioness of Linlithgow. (Her staff call her ‘Lady L’ and I’ll use that from now on for simplicity.) Like a great many such places, the challenge is to be able to afford to keep them by commercial exploitation without going so far over the top that you lose all the things you love about your home that make you willing to invite strangers in for weddings, clay pigeon shooting weekends, one day courses and the like.

Lady L, thanks to the dedicated efforts of her head gardener, Andrea Atherton, has made the grounds around the house into a beautiful, comforting garden with large mature trees and shrubs and well-manicured lawns sloping down to the lake.

View of Bryngwyn Hall gardens 

But gardens are never static and two things happened that brought about quite a change. First, an old large juniper tree fell down leaving a patch of bare ground after its removal and then, after hosting a day’s foraging course, Lady L got over enthusiastic about the notion of ‘living off the land’ and very nearly put tomato leaves into a salad to be served to a party of paying guests.

When she was told that this was not a good idea (the tomato plant is a relative of Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, though it is likely that the plant breeding that has gone into it may have greatly reduced, or eliminated, the toxins but I wouldn’t want to test that by eating them by the handful) Lady L started looking to see what else was poisonous in her garden and decided that the bare patch left by the dead juniper would make an interesting poison garden.

After a year or so of intense effort, the garden was into its first growing season with enough growth on most of the plants to make them viewable so Lady L invited me to go down to Bryngwyn Hall and talk about poisonous plants to a group of paying visitors and then conduct the official opening of her new venture.

Bryngwyn Hall Poison Garden 

The programme I’d been sent beforehand showed that I would be doing a presentation in the house in the morning and then taking a tour of the garden after lunch and the official opening. That meant re-working my ‘Lethal Lovelies’ talk both to make it longer and to take out some of the plants in order to save their stories for when the guests would be able to see them.

Luckily, I had done almost all the preparation beforehand so I had some time to see what I could find around the estate. This large population of Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort, on the lake shore was almost shimmering in the bright sun.

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort 

And I’ll have a lovely illustration for the next time someone asks ‘What about bees?’

Bee on Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort 

What I hadn’t asked before I arrived was how many people would be present so it was a bit of a shock that the event had sold out; in Bryngwyn Hall terms this means the maximum number that can be fed at lunchtime, 45 people, had bought tickets.

The weather forecast had suggested it would be a reasonably pleasant day but, in fact, it was a belter. It was almost a crime to close the shutters in the salon for my nearly two hour talk in the morning. (We didn’t make people sit still for two hours. There was a short leg-stretching break halfway through. I found the ideal teaser line to end the first half with but I won’t say what it was because I’ll definitely use it again in other talks.)

Given the need to find the balance between being truthful and sounding boastful, I’ve come down on the side of truth – the presentation went down a storm. Over pre-lunch drinks and the excellent lunch provided by Christine (Lady L’s kitchen goddess) I spoke to a large number of the attendees who were all very complimentary and anxious to ask for more detail about one plant or another.

With 45 people and many of the plants still getting themselves established it wasn’t really a tour of the Poison Garden in the afternoon. It was more of an open air talk in the Poison Garden so I kept it quite short and then let people wander around and answered their questions either individually or by calling everyone’s attention when the question struck me as having general interest.

As always, the dual nature of many plants (use of small amounts to cure and larger amounts to kill) featured in the questions and it gave Lady L a brilliant idea. The garden has two gates and it struck her that one could be the poison entrance and the other the healing gate.

We encouraged visitors to have a wander round the main garden before they left to see how many poisonous plants they could see. Quite a number were aware of the nature of Rhododendron but you wouldn’t want to be deprived of beauty like this.

Rhododendron at Bryngwyn Hall 

The plan is to open the garden for pre-booked groups and charity open days and I suggested that, with the groups, Lady L should explain the difference between the two gates and invite people to choose which way to enter the garden.

It was a really excellent day but, as usual, I realised after everyone had left that I had missed a number of important plants altogether or missed good stories of ones I did talk about.

The following morning a journalist from the local paper came to get some information and pictures meaning, in total, I spent one and two half days in a most adorable location so I was quite pleased I’d forgotten a lot as I might be able to make another visit, next year, and have new material to offer.

For more information about visiting the Bryngwyn Hall Poison Garden please visit the website for the estate.


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