Archives for February 2021

Welcome to the Poison Garden

Northeast of London in the heart of Northumberland you will find Alnwick Castle.

The castle dates back to 1750.

Over the past few years the owner, the Duchess of Northumberland, has restored the gardens of the Castle, at the request of her husband, the Duke.

Many visitors come every year.

The popular attraction for the twelve acre site has become her famous Poison Garden, a garden of one hundred toxic plants that could kill, sicken, or debilitate.

Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northhumbland, began the work of restoring and creating the gardens in 1995. It took fourteen years to complete the task.

She wanted something special about the garden. That’s when she came up with the idea of adding a Poison Garden.

Smithsonian Magazine writer Natasha Geiling wrote a wonderful article about the Poison Garden called “Step Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Garden (If You Dare).”

Alnwick Castle’s popular attraction: The Poison Garden [Courtesy of Alnwick Castle]

She says, “After visiting the infamous Medici poison garden on a trip to Italy, the duchess became enthralled with the idea of creating a garden of plants that could kill instead of heal.”

The Duchess collected one hundred such plants to make the garden. The plants include hemlock, belladonna, monkshood, wormwood, giant hogweed, mandrake, cannabis and coca.

Remember that the plant is toxic under certain conditions, like imbibing.

Geiling writes, “Because of the plants’ dangerous qualities, visitors to the Poison Garden are prohibited from smelling, touching, or tasting any of them.”

A guide must accompany any visitor into the Garden.

The Garden sits behind a black iron gate. An iron fence surrounds it on all four sides.

Not too inviting. But, after all, the plants are all killers.

This black iron gate and fence greet the visitor to the Poison Garden.
[Courtesy of Alnwick Castle]


Searching for Flowers and Herbs of Early America

I once spent an entire day at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and I loved it.

The various houses, along with their gardens, especially the Governor’s Palace, made the visit a journey into American garden history.

Lawrence D. Griffith in his book Flowers and Herbs of Early America sets out to discover the plants of the early decades of America’s colonial and Federal garden by looking at the early plants at Williamsburg.

He documents fifty-eight species of flowers and herbs and explores how they were cultivated and used.

The book is filled with plants, and tells the story of how each found a home in a Williamsburg garden.

Griffith is curator of plants at Colonial Williamsburg, so he knows the plants well.

He set out to create a list of early flowers and herbs at Williamsburg.

He even read the works of Dioscorides.

Dioscorides was the eminent first-century Greek physician and surgeon who served in the Roman army.

Griffith writes, “For almost fifteen hundred years, Dioscorides was regarded as the ultimate authority on plants and medicine.”

He searched also in early English plant directories, of which there are several.

Building a Garden

Griffith’s goal was to create a garden of early plants at Williamsburg.

After research of the plants he would use, he tracked down seeds for them.

He prepared the soil, planted the seeds, and watched how they grew.

The book is his journey of discovering and growing those early Williamsburg plants.

He lists flowers first and then the second half of the book he devotes to herbs.

I thoroughly enjoyed the historical background of the plants. At the same time I was surpised to see that many of them are still popular in gardens today.

Griffith not only provides a history of each plant, but also recommends the best method in encouraging their growth in your own garden.

Who could ask for anything more?


Exotics Not Always Welcomed in 19th Century America

In the nineteenth century it was not always popular to include exotic plants in the landscape.

At the same time some horticulturists called for more native plants.

In her amazing book of garden essays Foreign Trends in American Gardens: A History of Exchange, Adaptation, and Reception Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto brings up the issue.

Eric MacDonald, one of the writers, says,

“By the close of the nineteenth century American gardens seemed increasingly populated by plants whose ancestors had originated in other places.”

Plants like the Nasturtium…


Many summers I have planted this lovely Nasturtium ‘Butter Cream’ in my garden. [below]. What would my garden be like without it?

Nasturtium ‘Butter Cream’ Courtesy of: National Garden Bureau

The Spanish conquistadors discovered the nasturtium in the seventeenth century.

The flower came to England in 1686.

According to Flowers and Herbs of Early America by Lawrence D. Griffith they also came from the West Indies into Spain then to France and Flanders.

Today it is a common flower in the garden, but it is not native to the United States.

Voice of Opposition

Still there was in the nineteenth century a concern that including too many exotics in the garden was not to be encouraged.

That sentiment came from no-less a prestitious horticultural journal than Garden and Forest.

McDonald writes, “While the editors and other contributors to Garden and Forest cautioned against the use of foreign elements in American landscapes, advertisers and other contributors extolled their virtues.”

Commercial interests were at play in the deluge of exotic plants that came into America.

That voice won out in the long run.

Even though some critics remarked “Efforts to perpetuate freaks of nature, which, had she been left to herself, would never have multiplied in any appreciable extent.”

In Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening you will find a nasturtium, formally referred to as Tropaeolum, as a species called Peregrinum.

The description says, “Flowers pale yellow, 1 in. long. A particularly dainty type used in English cottage gardens. Peru.”

This lovely flower, popular in English and American gardens, came from South America.

Courtesy of London’s Garden Museum

English Garden Style Inspired Nineteenth Century America

The English landscape garden with its lawn, pathways, trees lining the property, and boxwood shrubs surrounding the flower beds dominated America in the nineteenth century.

It was as if we had little imagination.

Perhaps America was too busy settling in, too busy just surviving, to concern itself with the landscape.

Even America’s own Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted showed a predilection for the English landscape, especially the lawn.

Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto edited the book Foreign Trends in American Gardens: A History of Exchange, Adaptation, and Reception.

She writes, “American garden design in the nineteenth century was dominated by the influence of the English landscape garden, as reinterpreted for a democratic society in both American public parks and private gardens by such notable practitioners as Frederick Law Olmsted.”

America Responds

By the end of the century landscape garden designers like Charles Platt had had enough of this dependence on England.

He called that artistic leaning a type of ‘Anglomania.’

The Japanese garden through an exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 made America consider seriously other views of the landscape like the Asian.

At the same time in the Berkshires of Massachusetts novelist and gardener Edith Wharton promoted Italian garden design .

America’s own midwest landscape architects proposed a prairie design for the landscape with a focus on native grasses.

Slowly there was movement away from simply the English view of landscape as the only choice for Americans.