The killing field

11th November 2005 at 00:00
Jerome Monahan follows pupils into a garden with plants more deadly than serpent bites

The Year 5 pupils from the Duke's Middle School gather excitedly outside the Alnwick poison garden's firmly locked gates. Education programme director Alison Hamer warns them not to touch, taste or even sniff anything growing inside. She points out the snake and spider that feature in the entrance's elaborate ironwork decoration. "You are going to see plants inside more deadly than insect stings or serpent bites and others more valuable than gold."

First stop is at a bed of Urtica dioica - nettles. "What's needed if you're stung by these?" asks Alison. Most call out "dock leaves," identifying a clump of them nearby.

"Today the aim is to add at least one more plant story to your stock," she explains. "Once everyone had lots of such knowledge but as people moved to cities and medicine became professionalised they forgot it."

To illustrate the point, she repeats the old warning that to bend to pick snowdrops is to risk being pulled down by the Devil, a cautionary tale designed to prevent people using the plant's toxic bulbs in their cooking.

The route takes us along an ivycovered path; occasional windows in the structure give teasing views of the poison garden and the landscape beyond.

"It's a design principle here," says Alison, "that there should be a constant sense of discovery, of not knowing what is around the next corner." The poison garden is one of three new gardens to have opened this year, and there are plans for at least three more by 2008.

The collection of stories grows. We learn of the dangers of cooking with oleander twigs, of the wartime role of aconite in poisoning wells and how belladonna juice was once popular with ladies wanting their eyes to look fashionably misty. There are plenty of plants with Shakespearean associations too, such as yellow-flowered henbane, Claudius' poison of choice when disposing of Hamlet's father.

Elsewhere, we find that recent arrivals to Britain, such as the giant hogweed, have created new hazards. Alison tells of a mother on a previous tour who, when she heard her describe how the plants' sap leaves photosensitive "burns" on skin that last for up to four years, suddenly realised the cause of her son's skin condition, which was so much worse on sunny days.

The tour takes in a plant that carries off five million people a year, was once the preserve of Chinese emperors and led one Tsar to threaten its users with loss of their noses - tobacco. And the same kind of information is on offer when we pause before the garden's crop of opium poppies.

The visit ends with Alison having her collection of tales enlarged by 10-year-old Andrew, who tops her story about archers' use of woolfbane to poison arrow heads. He says it was put at both ends so anyone attempting to extract one from an injured compatriot risked poisoning too. "Education should be two-way," says Alison. "It's something that does not happen when things are too prescribed. We are not fans of groups with worksheets."

There is much more for the Duke's School pupils to explore as they leave the poison garden. Before them is the spectacular tree-house with its swaying walkways, the water displays in the serpent garden, the thrills of the cascade and the opportunity to sniff innocent blooms to their hearts'

content in the rose garden.

lAlnwick Garden, of which the poison garden is part, opens 364 days a year.

School group admissions: children 11 and under pound;1.20, or pound;2.70 for additional entrance to castle.

On the map

The Alnwick Garden Denwick Lane, Alnwick, Northumberland NE66 1YU Tel: 01665 511360

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