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Thursday, 27 June 2013

How To Grow Your Own Poison Garden

Now that I'm back home for the summer, I've been getting invested in gardening once again. Sadly it's not an option for me uni (though I plan on having tonnes of plants in my room next year!), but hopefully if I ever get a place of my own I might have a bit of ground to do something with.

There's lots of suggestions on the web about how to modify your garden to a darker taste; as well as some gorgeous pinterest boards, the Everyday Goth has done a fabulous post looking at horticulture for a darker colour palate. I, however, have decided to blog about something which has been close to my heart for a long time; poison gardens.

Since I was a wean I've always been interested in deadly flora; plants that trapped and ate things, plants that were used as poisons, plants where a single berry could stop your heart... I was a twisted child, I suppose. This has only increased since starting medical school - any drug, after all, can be a poison in the right quantity, and many seemingly deadly plants are used for treating a variety of conditions. The cultivation of these plants has been an art for centuries, with much folklore and many books dedicated to them, and they conjure up ideas of intrigue and mystery, of arcane alchemy. And, of course, one of my great role models is a perfect example of this -

Image from here (original source couldn't be found)

That's right! As any Addam's Family fan worth their salt knows, Morticia is an avid gardener, growing all variety of poisonous and dangerous plants in her conservatory, including her African Strangler Cleopatra. Morticia's green thumb isn't the only example of lethal botany, however; the Alnwick Gardens feature their very own Poison Garden, which cultivates over 100 varieties of both notorious and everyday plants with dangerous effects. I, obviously, am desperate to visit.

If you're interested in growing your own deadly flora (what's more badass than a garden which can kill, afterall?), I've listed some interesting plants for inclusion! Care needs to be taken, obviously, as to the growing conditions of the plants; as this can often be drastically different between species, separate areas (such as pots) for plants with different requirements to one another is a good idea.

WARNING: Naturally, some of these plants can kill, and although I've endeavored to highlight those of particular risk care needs to be taken with them (particularly around children and animals). Some plants such as giant hogweed are too dangerous to cultivate and others are even illegal, so make sure to read up first if you plan on growing any of these.

Papaver somniferum: the Opium Poppy

Illustration from here

The opium poppy, or Papaver somniferum (Papaver 'from Africa', somniferum 'sleep producing') is most famous for its resin, opium. Opium contains, along with other alkaloids, morphine - an incredibly strong analgesic (pain killer), a derivative of which - diamorphine - is famously known as the addictive heroin. The use of opium dates back to prehistoric times, and was reintroduced to the west by China in the 15th century, and sparked the first and second Opium Wars.

As a poison, morphine is often the drug of choice for less reputable medical professionals, where overdose causes asphyxia and death via respiratory depression. There is much folklore dedicated to the poppy, with one of my favourite tales detailing how one throws poppy seeds on the ground to halt a pursuing vampire or daemon, which will be forced to count the seeds. As a garden plant the poppy is very popular, although the cultivation of its seed heads without a license is illegal.

Digitalis spp.: the Foxglove

Yep, the humble foxglove, or Digitalis purperea (Digitalis from the latin for 'finger', purperea 'purple'), is in fact an incredibly poisonous plant! Also known as witches gloves and dead man's bells, the entire plant is considered toxic. Digoxin - the toxic compound present - causes the lowering of heart rate, or bradycardia, which at dangerous levels can cause a heart attack; clinically, however, Digoxin in the treatment of heart failure and arrythmias. As a poison, digoxin is, once again, popular with rogue medical professionals (I'm worried that this post is just becoming a list of all the ways that I can kill people once I qualify... :s); however, the leaves have often been included in salads and herbal teas, both purposefully and accidentally.

Atropa Belladona: Deadly nightshade

Illustration found here
Possibly one of the most famous poisonous plants of all time, Deadly Nightshade, or Atropa Belladonna (Atropa from Atropos, one of the three fates, and belladonna from the Italian for 'beautiful woman') is notorious in its toxicity. In folklore, it was thought to be the devil's plant, with  witches believed to use it in flying ointment. Historically it has been used in eye drops to widen the pupils, and was thought to have killed the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Death is caused by the effect of the toxic compound atropine on the heart, with a dangerously raised pulse rate (or tachycardia) resulting; as with digoxin and morphine, this ability has been harnessed by the medical community to treat a low heart rate. Most cases of poisoning, however, are a result of consuming the attractive, sweet berries. I include Deadly Nightshade here mainly because of its infamous reputation - it's not often cultivated, and due to its high toxicity I wouldn't recommend it. If you do decide to cultivate it, buy young plants (seeds are particularly difficult to germinate), use gloves and keep it away from all pets, herbs and edible flora.

Aconitum napellus: Monkshood

Photo from here
Aconitum napellus (Aconitum possibly from the greek for 'cone', napellus 'turnip') is known as 'the queen of the poisons', with the toxins aconite and aconitine present throughout the plant - the effects of which, which, in an interesting twist of poison counteracting poison, can be treated with atropine from Deadly Nightshade. Monkshood was often used as poison on arrows in Ancient Rome and China, and it is a close relative of the equally poisonous Aconitum Lycotonum, or Wolfsbane (so named for its ability to kill wolves). Death occurs within several hours of poisoning, with vomiting and nausea being early symptoms before death usually occurs by arrythmias. Despite their highly toxic nature, monkshood is popular as a garden plant, and if I have learned nothing else from this post its that the sanity of horticulturalist should probably be questioned.

Hyoscyamus niger: Black Henbane


Illustration taken from here
Black Henbane, named so for the colour of the roots, was thought to be the 'henbenon' poured into the ear of Hamlet's father in Shakespeare's Hamlet, and like Deadly Nightshade (of which it is a relative, sharing the same toxic compounds) was used in flying ointments. In the 21st century most cases of Hyoscyamus niger (Hyoscyamus 'pig bean' and niger 'black') use are deliberate consumption for its hallucinogenic properties, though it was used occasionally as a poison historically (also in Germany to increase the effects of beer, disturbingly enough). I'm very fond of Henbane for its striking veined flowers with their purple centres, and their wide distribution across Britain suggests that they'll be relatively easy to grow.

Mandragora officinarum: the Mandrake

Photo from here
Perhaps the most written about of the poison plants, much mythology surrounds the Mandrake (Mandragora possibly meaning 'sleep producing drug', officinarum from plants sold in pharmacies). The shape of the roots are supposed to make them look like a human body, and while not often used as a poison (perhaps due to its expensive status), it was claimed when pulled from the ground to release a deadly scream. A relative of deadly nightshade and henbane, the effects of ingestion are similar to those plants, with hallucinations being often reported as a side effect. Mandrakes, from what I've seen, seem to be particularly hard to grow, so they're perhaps only for the experienced gardener.

There are, of course, other poisonous plants out there for cultivation, such as poison hemlock (famous for being the plant that killed Socrates), hound's tongue and common wormwood (also known as absinthe wormwood for its role in the production of the green spirit), though some aren't recommended for gardening. There are other things that can be included, however!

While they don't strictly speaking fit in a poison garden, carnivorous plants are just as deadly, and their unusual appearance will contrast well with some of the more attractive or innocuous species listed above.

Venus Fly Traps (photo from here)
I've kept venus fly traps in the past, and they're one of my favourites! They're difficult to grow from seed, but I had absolutely no problem buying plants pre-potted. The plants are famous for their snap trap, which - when the hairs on the inside of the mouth are triggered - closes shut around the hapless insect stuck inside.

Pitcher Plants

Photo from here
Pitcher plants are actually a group of plants which all feature pitfall traps to trap their prey, which they then digest. Glasgow Botanic gardens features an excellent selection of these, and at some point in the future I'd love to grow them myself.


Utricularia spp.: Bladderwort

Photo from here
Bladderworts are particularly useful if you plan on a water garden, as many species are water based. With their 'bladder' traps they capture small water organisms such as water fleas and nematodes, which suck in the prey when triggered. These are easy to grow plants, given their presence on virtually every land mass, and have a variety of flower forms and colours.

Augment these with more fantastical creations, such as those seen at 102 Wicked Things To Do (my new favourite blog). I, personally, am desperate to make myself a scorpion orchid.

Now that I have (hopefully) encouraged you to start up your own poison garden, I'm off to collapse into bed. Happy growing!


Resources (good range of carnivorous plants for sale)


  1. I've always loved plants but am horrible at keeping them alive. Hopefully you are better with plants than I am :P

    Also I have tagged you in a challenge on my blog.

    1. I'm certainly getting better at it, though I can't say that I'm good at remembering to water them. :P

      Many thanks! I'll get around to doing it shortly.

  2. I have the beginning of a poison garden and I would recommend Abrus, fern like vine,easy to grow from seed although there are inhibitors in the seed that prevent too many seeds from sprouting in a single space. Highly toxic, more so than Ricin, which is also present in my garden with the gorgeous Purple Camphor I have everywhere. From your page here I was inspired to purchase some Black Henbane seed that I am eager to receive. Since I am in the Sonoran Desert I am able to grow anything that can tolerate heat and I have had Carrion flowers, Stapelia gigantea, for many years. I was looking for a poison gardeners club of a sort to no avail.

  3. I'm from jalisco and I have a lot of baneful herbs, mandrake, black, white and egypcian henbanes, deadly nightshade, wolfabane, larkspur, foxglove, abrus, castor bean, water and poison hemlock, delphinium, calas, caladium, white snake root, bryonia alba, bloodroot, lilys of the valley, and a lot more and is a creepy and dark garden. I'm trying to do something similar tothe famous ainwick garden


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