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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 11th August 2011

I said, a few days ago, that I’d tell the story of my visit to the Chelsea Physic Garden and, as it has rained steadily for two days meaning I haven’t been to see how things are going in the garden, today seemed to be a good time.

I think most people have heard of the Chelsea Garden so I’ll just give this link to its website for those who haven’t or who want to learn more about it.

I’d wanted to visit for some time because I’d heard, incorrectly as it turned out, that they had Strychnos nux-vomica, the poison nut tree, and I wanted to get some pictures of it as the Alnwick Garden hadn’t been able to source it. The last I heard, the Alnwick Garden still did not have it but, I think, they may have gone for a ‘similar’ plant just so the guides could talk about it.

The opportunity to visit Chelsea arose when we booked a holiday to Malta with flights from Gatwick Airport. Rather than take a chance on a connecting flight from Newcastle or Edinburgh, we decided to drive down to stay a few days with friends in Surrey making a trip up to Chelsea on the Sunday afternoon.

The Chelsea Physic Garden was established in 1673 as a place for apprentices of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London to find out for themselves what the plants used in many of the remedies they prepared looked like. It seems to have taken some time for the garden to be established because Thomas Johnson, who revised Gerard’s Herbal in 1633, had expressed concerns about apothecaries buying plants from women who collected them without sufficient knowledge.

Being intended for careful study by a limited number of students, the garden is not well-suited to the modern day tourist visitor. This may explain why the public opening hours are limited. They have, in fact, been increased in recent years to five afternoons a week but, in 2005, when we visited, I recall it was only open on Sunday and one other afternoon.

With the increased hours it may be that there are, now, staff members who take tours of the garden but, in those days, the garden relied on volunteers to take brief tours lasting around 30 minutes. We decided to join one of those tours, in part to enable me to ask questions specifically about the poisonous plants in their collection.

Vitex agnus castus, the chaste tree

Vitex agnus castus, the chaste tree

Unfortunately, our presence completed disturbed our volunteer guide. Nothing to do with me, I stress. My wife uses a wheelchair if anything more than a short walk is required and, given the reason for the garden being created, it is not surprising that the paths are not all suitable for wheelchairs.

We assured the guide, a charming ‘Chelsea’ type, probably, in her 70s, that we would work around her and not to worry about us but she was determined to do her best for my wife and, as a result, strayed from her normal tour and took us on a rather disjointed excursion where she tried to match the plants she could talk about to the places she felt we could reach with the chair.

I don’t mean to mock her efforts but, my belief, is that volunteers should be expected to be as capable as an employee should be and, I realise, her tour was aimed at general tourists but there were things in the tour that made our jaws drop.

At Alnwick, I stressed to staff and volunteers that they must not touch any of the plants when taking a tour. This was nothing to do with ‘elf ‘n’ safety but was based on concern that, with around 30 tours a day being taken round the garden, there could be a cumulatively harmful effect on the plants themselves.

Ilex aquifolium, holly

Ilex aquifolium, holly

Against that background, my jaw dropped when our Chelsea guide pulled several leaves off the first plant she stopped at, Vitex agnus castus, the chaste tree, and passed them around. She passed them only to men in the group before telling them that they might be sterilised as a result. I suppose she may have been trying to discourage any foraging during the rest of the tour but the claimed effect of this tree, also known as monk’s pepper, was, to say the least, over-stated.

In truth, I can’t recall many of the other plants she spoke about because the mechanics of getting Rita from place to place dominated events but I do have the final plant etched on my memory.

The guide stopped at a large tree and explained that it had been there for a very long time and had started out as Ilex aquifolium, holly, but, at some point had crossed with another plant so that the higher branches had leaves with smooth edges unlike the characteristic spiky leaves visible on the lower branches.

And not just visible. We soon saw that the spikiness of the leaves could also be detected by touch. The guide, becoming completely absorbed in telling her stories about the tree, stepped back and then leapt forward with a little yelp. Politeness dictated that we should overcome our impulse to laugh at this misfortune but we resisted successfully both this first and the second time she did it. But, the third occasion was too much for our self-control and we had to make our excuses and leave, as the tabloid Sunday’s used to say.   


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