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Talks about The Poison Garden


Poisonous plants are not likely to be first choice for many people if asked what they would like to hear a talk about but my experience is that, once people have heard a few stories about these plants, they want to hear more. A fair proportion of mytalks, these days, are return visits to groups I've visited before.

A Talk about All the Plants

When I first set out to see how to offer more information to people I thought I would give a talk covering all the poisonous plants with the facts, fiction and folklore about them but it soon became clear that such a talk would run for up to four hours. I decided to fragment the subject and it seemed logical to do that division by a topic area.

John Robertson speaking to HADCAF
Speaking to the Hungerford & District Community Arts
Festival in 2016.

Out of that came the present package of talks but there are a number of other areas which would lend themselves to a separate talk and the programme is likely to increase.

The following is a brief insight into the talks on offer. Please see the right-hand column for details of how to book one of these talks for your organisation.

Lethal Lovelies

This is as close to an all encompassing talk as it is possible to get without going over the forty-five minutes to an hour time span which seems to be the norm for most purposes.

The basis of the talk is to look at the three ways to avoid being harmed by a poisonous plant; don't touch, don't eat, don't sniff. This is followed by a look at the most notorious of the plants and a brief overview of the issues surrounding the misuse of the substances the psychoactive plants contain.

The actual plants featured are mostly the same but the time spent on each and the stories told vary from talk to talk and there are people who have heard 'Lethal Lovelies' more than once and say that no two talks are ever the same.

Medical Murderers

There is something ghoulish in all of us so it isn't surprising that many people want to hear about the use of poisonous plants as a murder weapon.

Again, to try and cover all the many ways the plants have been used to kill would produce a training course not a one off talk so I decided to focus on the medical professionals who have used the plants as their weapons.

This does more than simply restrict the territory to be covered so that the talk can be kept to a reasonable length. As our knowledge grows it becomes more difficult to obtain and use both the plants and the extracts from them so, increasingly, poisoning is the domain of the expert and, by limiting the theme to medically trained murderers, it is possible to include the most famous serial killer of the 20th century.

But there is more to 'Medical Murderers' than just satisfying ghoulish curiosity. By asking why and how these killers were able to function, the talk is also a thought-provoking look at what we believe and why we trust some people and not others.

Lethal Ladies

There’s a popular notion that poison is a woman’s weapon. This stems from the idea that women are fragile creatures who can’t bear to look their victims in the eye and so rely on a murder weapon that takes time AND the view that because women are the sole preparers of food they have the opportunity to administer poisons with dinner. Such ideas are not just wrong today; they have always been wrong. In my talk ‘Medical Murderers’ I feature ten men and only two women. 

When I received a request to give a presentation just about female poisoners, however, I did find plenty to talk about by including those lethal ladies who used metallic poisons like arsenic and mercury as well as those who relied on plant based substances.

The talk was sufficiently well received for me to add it to repertoire and I've already taken bookings for both it and a longer form talk that combines Medical Murderers and Lethal Ladies.

Murderous Morphine

Click on the arrow to watch a short video edited from the full Medical Murderers talk concentrating on the use of morphine as a murder weapon.

Who Wants to be a Murderer?

Though drawing on a number of the cases used in 'Medical Murderers', the approach of this talk is a little more light-hearted and, in particular, looks at the historical reaction to death which enabled so many murders to go undetected. It also questions our complacency and asks whether murder could still be all around us.

The 'Phantastica'

'Phantastica' is a term coined by Doctor Louis Lewin to embrace all the substances, mostly plant derived, which affect the human brain in any way.

This talk is about the best known of those plants and looks at why we use them, how we use them and what the real harms they can cause are as opposed to those harms which exist only in the headlines.

Showing how juicy a deadly nightshade berry is

Showing how juicy deadly nightshade berries are
at HADCAF 2016

Though dealing with a serious subject, the talk has its lighter moments and is an entertaining way to get the audience thinking for themselves about the issues surrounding substance abuse.

It is suitable for all age groups and has held the attention of teenagers and grandparents alike.

War and Remembrance

This is a more specialised talk intended for use around the time of November 11th and Remembrance Sunday. It looks as the plants which have had a role in warfare, or the justification for waging war, and follows a timeline from the Roman invasion of Britain through to the present 'war on terror' and the troops fighting in the poppy fields of Afghanistan.

Poisonous Plants in Your Local Area

Whilst usually including many of the plants whose stories are told in 'Lethal Lovelies', the idea of this talk is to feature plants that the audience will find in their own gardens or local parks and countryside.

Poisonous Plants and the Bible

I originally set out to prepare a talk on poisonous plants IN the Bible but soon found that it is impossible to be sure exactly which plants are being referred to. By changing 'IN' to 'AND' I could avoid making claims that are hard to defend and I could include those plants that have had a biblical connection grafted onto them though there is no Bible story that refers to them.

Other Talks

There are a number of other subject areas which could easily be covered. Everything from plants in Shakespeare, in literature generally to plants that poison horses or other specific animals. In time, more of these subject areas will become the topic for a talk.

How to Hear a Talk

For Group Organisers

Please use the contact form to enquire about availability.

Click here

For Individuals

Why not ask your local group, whatever that is, to arrange a talk?


The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.







A to Z Links

Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree