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A 'Poison' Garden in Northern England


The English aristocracy is often embraced for its eccentricities. But when newspapers announced recently that the Duchess of Northumberland was about to use her gardens to grow cannabis and opium and poppies, there were dissenting grumbles. Reporter Nessa Tierney went to Alnwick in the northeast of England to learn more.

(Soundbite of a tour in progress)

Mr. JOHN ROBERTSON (Warden, Poison Garden): First of all, good afternoon, an

welcome to the Alnwick Garden--Poison Garden.

NESSA TIERNEY reporting:

John Robertson is warden of the Poison Garden in this huge public park.

Mr. ROBERTSON: When we say these plants can kill, we are completely serious. So don't touch anything. Don't pick anything. Don't eat anything.

Duchess of Northumberland: These berries are very, very dangerous.

TIERNEY: The Duchess of Northumberland is surveying her flower bed, for which she had to get a special government license.

Duchess of Northumberland: Well, we have to be careful because it is actually quite easy to manufacture ricin from the ricinus plant. We don't tell children how to kill people. We stop short there. But we would tell them how that plant has been used recently in cases of terrorism, as in the Japan underground incident, you know, five years ago.

TIERNEY: So it's on this idea of educating the public that the duchess says she has set up the Poison Garden. But with younger visitors, tour guide Len Reese(ph) has found it sometimes difficult to get serious points across.

Mr. LEN REESE (Tour Guide): Have you got a foxglove in your garden?

Unidentified Child #1: We have it.

Mr. REESE: You have a foxglove in your...

Unidentified Child #2: We do, we do.

Mr. REESE: Well, it's a very poisonous plant. A gardener died from eating and chewing those leaves.

Unidentified Child #3: And foxes sometimes come out when they're going to a party and they pick them and put them on their fingers.

Mr. REESE: Do they? That's absolutely right.

TIERNEY: There are some lessons for the grown-ups, too.

Mr. REESE: I bet you don't know what that plant is in there. Anybody? You shouldn't know, and I'm sure somebody...

Unidentified Man: It's cannabis.

Mr. REESE: It's cannabis. You do know, sir.

Unidentified Man: My wife told me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TIERNEY: Guides never make it quite clear how helping people identify a pot plant will discourage them from using the stuff, but clearly that's not too big a worry for many visitors. Most are led wide-eyed by Alnwick Castle, the film location for Hogwarts school in the "Harry Potter" movies. The Poison Garden guides make the most of those assets in their tour of the garden.

Mr. REESE: There's the mandrake plant. It has a root the shape of a human being or the shape of a person. And, of course, you know--if you're a "Harry Potter" fan, you know getting it out of the ground is very, very difficult because if you take the soil off that plant and expose the root to the sunshine, it will emit a horrendous scream, and everybody in this whole garden would be dead.

TIERNEY: The duchess is adamant, though, that even though the "Harry Potter" castle is a tourist draw, the Poison Garden isn't just a money-making scheme. Sitting beside a crackling log fire in the garden restaurant, she explains her educational ideas behind the garden.

Duchess of Northumberland: Apparently it's one of the only places where different generations can go and talk about drug abuse. And you can have a grandmother and her daughter and her granddaughter all there together looking at the opium plant and hearing how man has turned that into a killer and seeing the damage that it's done in the 20th century.

TIERNEY: Liz Edgar(ph) and her teen-age daughter Harriet(ph) felt they got something worthwhile from seeing the opium poppies, coca and hemlock.

Ms. LIZ EDGAR (Tourist): Very useful. It was very well-balanced, talking about how dangerous things can be but equally talking about their medicinal purposes when they're used in the right way.

HARRIET: When you have education lessons, you see it as a tablet, but you never know what it's like as it's original form as a plant. So it's useful to know.

TIERNEY: If you're hoping to get your hands on something illegal while making a trip to the Poison Garden, you have little hope. There's 24-hour security, and the wrought iron gates, decorated with a skull and crossbones, are kept firmly locked.

(Soundbite of gate closing)

TIERNEY: For NPR News, I'm Nessa Tierney.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nessa Tierney