Many readers of the Biddenham Bulletin will have visited the gardens at AlnwickCastle on their travels around Northumberland. It was therefore with great pleasure that we welcomed Caroline Holmes to our February meeting. Caroline, who is a lecturer, author and broadcaster, was asked by Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, to research and devise the planting for the PoisonGarden which forms part of a most extraordinary contemporary garden at the castle.
In the 18th Century the gardens at AlnwickCastle were laid out by Lancelot Capability Brown who had all the rocks removed to create smooth and perfect slopes. The gardens were subsequently sadly neglected but in the 20th Century the present duchess commissioned Jacques and Peter Wirtz, to design a formal garden set around a cascading fountain – somewhere where children could have fun. Two hundred and fifty thousand gallons of water are stored underneath the ground and seven thousand gallons of water cascade over twenty one weirs in one minute, water is also propelled through one hundred and sixty two jets and can reach six metres high. At the foot of the cascade is the PoisonGarden designed by Peter Wirtz in a series of flame shaped beds, filled with poisonous plants researched and advised by Caroline.
Caroline entitled her talk “Permission to Poison” and we all enjoyed a very humorous hour whist learning about killing, dying and “bumping people off”. Many of the plants chosen for the PoisonGarden have Biblical or Shakespearean references. Stories, legends and myths come from the power of plants. Examples are Sleeping Beauty who was pricked by the thorn of a spindleberry; clematis vitalba – old man’s beard – the old man being the devil and the tendrils of the plant twining round other plants and choking them. Many of the plants in the PoisonGarden are well known to us and some are very poisonous indeed, for example, three leaves of a foxglove can kill a person. However, sometimes not all parts of the plant are poisonous it may be just the root or the seeds. Or, as in the case of the potato, anything which is above ground, unless the potato tuber itself is allowed to turn green.
Caroline had many a tale to tell – of nineteenth century smugglers who lined their clothes with tobacco leaves and died when they became warm and their bodies absorbed the nicotine. The cannabis plant which produces a slow poison that increases the heart rate and leads to anxiety and delirium. She gave us tips on what to eat or drink if we wanted to die with our mind intact – in this case hemlock. Caroline said that she worked with the Home Office to include drugs in the garden. They maintained that education was the best weapon in counteracting drug abuse. The cannabis plants growing in the garden are however protected by a framework to ensure the leaves are not picked.
Those of us who have been guided through the PoisonGarden – and one can only enter the garden in a group and accompanied by a guide through the beautiful “locked” iron gates and the dark tunnel of ivy – will have been struck by their knowledge and humorous anecdotes. Part of Caroline’s role was to provide briefing notes for the guides and safety information for the gardeners who deal with the plants. All in all a very enjoyable and informative evening looking at the “dark” side of plants.
A selection of the plants that can be seen in the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle: