The poison pool
A few weeks ago I wrote about my trip to Buckfast Abbey to work on the hair shirt of Sir Thomas More. While I was there, I enjoyed walking in the grounds and seeing the beautifully cultivated gardens, including a medieval-style garden divided by trellises, box hedges, and trained fruit trees, and broken into four amply sized quadrants: culinary, medicinal, sensory and poisonous.
I’ve been to a few medieval and renaissance garden re-creations in my time. The beautiful grounds at the Cloisters Museum in New York City; the gardens at the Geoffrey House Museum in London, which exhibits a range of garden styles and domestic interiors from several centuries, and Rowntree public park in the city of York, England. There are countless others, I am sure. But never before had I seen a poisonous plants garden, and I was really impressed with the elegance and thought that went into this one.
How would you present a poisonous plants garden intended for the public to admire, without setting off a string of health and safety alarm bells?
The monks’ (or their gardeners’) solution is to place the plants within a raised planter at the centre of a pool of water.
Of course you could clear the water with a leap, but it’s just wide enough to discourage little wandering hands and feet, and it provides a buffer for the distracted adult, too. You can’t reach out and grab a berry or a leaf: the water, whether you notice it or just think of it as a nice additional feature, is an effective space between you and the plants. It implies these plants are not like the other plants.
What creative uses of space have you come across in libraries, museums or gardens that offer non-verbal signals like this one? How can architecture and layout tell us what to do and what not to do, without using signs like ‘don’t touch’ or ‘no flash photography’? Have you seen a poisons garden or transcribed an antidote in the recipes category over on Shakespeare’s World? What have you found? Tell us about it here or over on Talk.