History of the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden
Just Another Poison Garden
The iconic gates
of the Poison Garden
When the Alnwick Garden decided to have a Poison Garden as one of
its attractions, it engaged a consultant to provide a list of poison
plants and the basic information about them.
In December 2003, I was a volunteer for the Alnwick Garden and was asked to research the folklore associated with the plants as well as their toxicity.
By the time the Poison Garden opened in February 2005, I had spent hundreds of hours researching the stories of the plants. Initially, the tours of the Poison Garden were conducted by volunteers but, in April 2005, it was realised that the garden was going to be hugely successful and that paid staff would be required. The Duchess of Northumberland invited me to become the Poison Garden Warden with responsibility for training the guides, both staff and volunteers, as well as conducting tours myself.
Making the Poison Garden More Poison
It was soon realised that many of the plants suggested by the consultant were more medicinal than poisonous or were used as antidotes to poisons and the Duchess wanted a proper Poison Garden. Working with Jane Johnson, the highly competent Assistant Head Gardener, a list of plants to be removed and their replacements was drawn up and, during the autumn and winter of 2005/6, the planting was substantially revised.
Over 25 new plants were introduced and 16 were removed. While Jane and the gardeners set about planting the new species it was necessary to make a study of their toxicity and folklore to enable the Poison Garden Guides to include the new plants in the tours.
The Substance Abuse Message
With regular new research being published about, mainly, the plants which have a role in substance abuse, with the many reports on and surveys of substance abuse produced by such organisations as the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the very many stories of encounters with poison plants provided by visitors, there was always more to learn and much of my spare time was, and is, spent conducting further research into the plants. I was happy to make the results of my free time studies available for the tour guides.
The Duchess of Northumberland is on record as saying she had not appreciated how strong the substance abuse message in the Poison Garden could be. But, it must be said, that message is a lot more complex than simply claiming that, because use of a substance has been declared illegal that substance is dangerous.
With a number of the plants on the list being very difficult to source, the planting of the Poison Garden remained incomplete. In particular, the Strychnos nux-vomica, source of strychnine, has never been displayed and the Erythroxylum coca, source of cocaine, only became available in 2008 when, as my final act as Poison Garden Warden, I obtained an Erythroxylum coca plant from Kew Gardens.