Sunday, April 25, 2004

In the Alchemist's Garden

Posted by Keith


I've had a longstanding fascination with plants, which I blame on my grandmother, who was a fanatic about her garden. Once, we went on a hike in a federal nature preserve and my father and uncle had to physically restrain her from transplanting a rather striking specimin, remnding her that stealing in a nature reserve is a federal crime. There's a longstanding literary tradition surrounding various botanicals of a ghastly nature as well, from the deadly and seemingly-deadly concoctions that Shakespeare's apothecry delt in, to the little old ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace. So, naturally, when I heard about this Poison Garden in England, I was intrigued:

The dell at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland will lie under a perpetual miasma of "deliberately spooky" mist, enlivened by a copper snake rearing from a grotto and hissing vapour, triggered by sensors as visitors creep past.

"It should be quite an experience," said Caroline Holmes, the garden's poison plant consultant, who takes a gleeful relish in her subject.

"The plants will be fascinating. Henbane, for instance, has the most evil-looking flowers, and mandrake grows in a distinctly sinister fashion."

Due to open in August, the Poison Garden is the latest part of Alnwick Gardens, a £42m extravaganza on the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland.

Although originally scoffed at by many conventional gardening experts, the terraced cascades, labyrinth and £3.3m treehouse village, which is currently being built, have become a big attraction.

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"The Poison Garden will be full of excitement and intrigue, especially for children," she said. "More seriously, it will a safe place for visitors to learn about the dangerous side of plants."

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The final choice of hundreds of plants has yet to be made, but other strong candidates include nepata, known as catnip or cats' cannabis because of its effect on felines, and monk's pepper, which alters the hormonal balance in both sexes.

Darnel, the only known poisonous grass, which increases its dangers by attracting the toxic fungus ergot, is likely to grow alongside castor oil plants, the source of the terrorist-scare poison ricin.

"Some of the plants are going to be quite hard to track down," said Ms Holmes, "but one of the educational things about the garden is the fact that many of them are very familiar."

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The cultivation of most of the varieties will not be difficult - venomous plants, like weeds, tend to grow prolifically, and many of them also produce vivid flowers, leaf patterns and coloured fruit or pods.

"They're not always the sort of thing you can buy in your local garden centre," Ms Holmes said, "but we know where to get hold of all of them."

Iím buying my ticket, right now.

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