Friday, November 16, 2012

The Poison Garden

Alnwick Garden Poison Garden Gates: These Plants Can Kill
photo courtesy The Alnwick Garden
A while back, a group of preschoolers visited my garden during their afternoon walk. While most of them pointed out butterflies, identified plants they grew in their school garden, or told me what vegetables they liked and hated, one young fellow came over and asked, "Do you have any poisonous plants?"

Kid: if you're a reader of this blog and haven't showed up on any no-fly lists yet, ask your parents to take you to the Alnwick Castle and its gardens the next time you're in northeast England. You might recognize the castle already; it showed up as Hogwarts in the first Harry Potter movies. The Alnwick Garden is even better — quite possibly the coolest castle garden around. It boasts one of the world's largest treehouses, night time light shows, and The Poison Garden, where skull-and-crossbones gates guard over 100 plants of varying deadliness. (And also marijuana.)

The Duchess of Northumberland says on the garden's website, "I wondered why so many gardens around the world focused on the healing power of plants rather than their ability to kill... I felt that most children I knew would be more interested in hearing how a plant killed, how long it would take you to die if you ate it and how gruesome and painful the death might be." My kind of lady.

Marijuana plant at The Alnwick Garden: sign reads "Please keep off the grass"
photo courtesy The Alnwick Garden

Arum italicum at The Alnwick Garden Poison Garden
photo courtesy The Alnwick Garden
The garden has its share of critics, including preservationists horrified that the estate's garden has been redeveloped into a sort of theme park. Others point out how much the local economy benefits from the influx of tourists. I might add that the castle and gardens are part of the national heritage, and their stewardship should arguably include making them relevant, accessible, and engaging to the widest possible audience — even if that means wrapping them in pop culture. Besides, every family that visits Alnwick means one or two fewer boisterous children interrupting your moment of quiet meditation in the more historically authentic gardens of a different castle.

The Poison Garden at The Alnwick Castle and Garden
photo courtesy The Alnwick Garden
What impressed me most is that the Alnwick Garden isn't just a tourist attraction — it's also a registered charity with an impressive array of programs, including several focused on healthy, affordable, local food. Local schoolchildren grow edibles in the Roots & Shoots garden, and the garden hosts family cooking classes that teach basic, healthy cooking, in partnership with Jamie's Ministry of Food. There are also Elderberries programs for older adults, and a particularly nice program that provides gardening workshops for adults with memory loss, in partnership with Northumbria Health Care Trust. Special crowd-free days are reserved for disabled children and their families, and the gardens were designed with wheelchair accessibility in mind — again, something you can't count on in more traditional castle gardens.

And finally, in answer to the question about my own garden: yes... sort of. I grow rhubarb and potatoes, both at the far left of the vegetable bed. The stems of the rhubarb plants and the potatoes (technically, the tubers of the potato plant) are safe and delicious when prepared properly, but the leaves of both plants (as well as green potato skin and stems) contain toxins that can make you sick or kill you.

Just one more good reason not to help yourself to things from other peoples' gardens.

The Alnwick Garden is located in Northumberland, in northeast England. Winter hours are limited and some areas are closed until spring. Details at

photo courtesy The Alnwick Garden