Agatha Christie Loved Poisonous Plants
Agatha Christie adored her gardens. As a child growing up at Ashfield House in the coastal town of Torquay (pronounced Tor-Key), her favorite spots were among outdoor potted palms, giant copper beach trees, and wild, woodland paths. Later on, as one of the all-time best-selling authors of the 20th century, she was able to afford her own country house and gardens nearby, called Greenway. There, she helped restore more than 30 acres of historic, specimen gardens and created her own successful commercial nursery. As her books continued to sell million-fold around the world, she was nevertheless known locally for winning the the annual Brixham Flower Show– a prestigious and increasingly international affair.
This horticultural side of the “Queen of Crime” is little-known by garden lovers or by millions of Christie’s fiction fans around the world. Although the annual International Agatha Christie Festival (coming up on September 13-17 in Torquay) draws thousands of visitors to Torquay and local sites including Greenway, most of these fans are focused on Christie’s fiction, not her plants. But the plants–as they always do– seem to tell a story all their own.
A Colorful and Long History
The gardens at Greenway were cultivated going back five centuries. The property was owned originally by a series of well-known farming and aristocratic families who lived along the River Dart. The mild coastal climate of Devon– sometimes called the “English Riviera”– lent itself to gardening with tropical plants, which contributes the the garden’s unique, ethereal quality today.
Each successive owner– including relatives of Sir Walter Raleigh– altered the landscape that Christie eventually bought, leaving her a bit overwhelmed with the task of managing such a “rare garden” when she took possession of it with her husband, Max Mallowan, in 1938.
Mallowan, a noted archeologist, kept detailed records of any trees, shrubs, and flowers that they purchased. He was especially fond of a magnolia tree still standing today near the house. But according to the Royal Horticultural Society, among the best exotic specimens in the gardens are rare mimosas, myrtles, mahonia, and puyas. Plus: there is an exceptional collection of more than 200 different camellia cultivars, more than 50 different eucalyptus species, and amazing gigantic rhododendrons originally brought from China in the 19th century by the famous plant-hunter George Forrest.
Two of Christie’s most famous mysteries are clearly set at Greenway, under fictional names. The murder weapon in Five Little Pigs happens to be local spotted hemlock. In Sparkling Cyanide, it’s cyanide, also a plant-based poison.
The property includes several distinct garden areas including: two walled gardens; a vinery; a kitchen garden; a fernery recently restored with a central water fountain; a “top garden” with gorgeous borders, late-flowering clematis on walls, and beschorneria– a succulent with 6-foot flower spikes.
Two of Christie’s most famous mysteries are clearly set at Greenway, under fictional names. These stories actually include many scenes in the gardens. They are: Five Little Pigs (1943) and Dead Man’s Folly (1956). (The murder weapon in Five Little Pigs happens to be local spotted hemlock. In Sparkling Cyanide, it’s cyanide, also a plant-based poison.)
Deadly Plants: Christie’s Weapons of Choice
According to her biographers, Christie never actually wrote her books at Greenway. She really was there to enjoy family holidays, to garden, and, most importantly, to re-charge her imagination for the next writing project, using the surroundings for creative inspiration. Many of her fictional characters, settings, and especially her plots, reflect her knowledge of the plants and grounds on the property.
In fact, Christie’s use of poisonous, plant-based chemicals as the “murder weapon” in so many of her mysteries reveals her gardening expertise. Many of the poisons in her stories come from plants that she knew well because they were growing in her own garden beds and in the surrounding woodland areas at Greenway.
The movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express hits theaters this fall.
Take one example: the poison cyanide. A plant-based chemical, cyanide is produced in the fruit stones of peaches, nectarines, and other members of the prunus family, which Christie knew because she cultivated these fruits in her extraordinary Peach House. This indoor garden house was the longest structure of its kind in Devon, and only recently has been restored.
Christie’s use of poisonous, plant-based chemicals as the “murder weapon” in so many of her mysteries reveals her gardening expertise.
In her novels, Christie also references many other potentially lethal plants like hemlock (which can be mistaken for wild parsley growing in the woodlands along pathways down to the river,) and digitalis (a toxic, heart-stopping compound that comes from the lovely foxgloves native to her garden). (See the list above for more examples of Christie’s “deadly weapons”.)
Christie had rather exceptional, detailed knowledge about dangerous poisons, not only from her gardening but from her youthful training as an apothecary’s assistant, or dispenser, in the local Torquay hospital during the First World War. She was also a dispenser at University College Hospital in London through the Second World War. As a result of this repeat training, she knew which plants and what doses could be lethal.
The Role of the National Trust
In 2009 Christie’s house at Greenway was re-opened to the public having been partially restored by Britain’s National Trust, an independent charity that grants protected status to historic houses, gardens, and ancient monuments. The estate was given to the Trust in 2000 by Christie’s family, who oversaw many of the plantings after her death in 1976.
The Trust continues to restore several of Greenway’s garden areas and currently gives tours of the house and gardens, providing background materials on their website, as they do for so many other outstanding gardens in England.
Because of the large number of visitors to Greenway, the Trust requires special transport arrangements so that the narrow country roads aren’t jammed. Parking near the property must be arranged in advance. Local experts say that the best approach is from the River Dart by boat or ferry– but whatever the approach, the gardens and grounds provide a unique combination of literary and horticultural experiences, as well as valuable botanical clues to many of Christie’s most captivating mysteries.