Recreating Rappaccini’s Garden: an Eden of Poisonous Flowers

Spotted foxglove

I’ve been looking for pictures of plants to bring to life the garden created by Rappaccini, the twisted plant breeder of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fable, and ‘as true a man of science as ever distilled his own heart in an alembic’. Rappaccini, like Frankenstein, used science to create a monster: his beguiling, innocent, but deadly daughter Beatrice. He and his daughter tend a collection of poisonous plants with heady, intoxicating fragrances that can wither and kill.  

Before long, I was bemoaning the inconvenience of having a passion for cottage garden plants, surely some of the most harmless-looking flowers on the planet (even the deadliest ones). Do any of these look scary to you?

Perhaps not, but most of these plants are poisonous or hallucinogenic. These next ones do have a slightly more sinister look:

And this one’s got to be pretty mean – after all, it’s eating a bee:

Himalayan Balsam

(The normal Himalayan Balsam just gets pollinated by them, then the bees crawl out again unscathed, but this is one with special powers… honestly. Just ask Hawthorne.)

I’m hoping these lush, green plants have an otherworldly look and bring to life the jewel-like colours Hawthorne describes. What is that hellebore thinking? Nothing nice if you ask me.

The most malicious plant in the story is Beatrice’s magnificent botanical ‘sister’, covered in ‘a profusion of purple flowers, each of which had the lustre and richness of a gem… the whole together made a show so resplendent that it seemed to illuminate the garden’.

My best shot at recreating that is here:

Purple flowers

‘…she threw open her arms, as with a passionate ardour, and drew its branches into an intimate embrace – so intimate that her features were hidden in its leafy bosom, and her glistening ringlets all intermingled with the flowers.’

Now that would be a picture! Sadly I haven’t been able to find one of those in my library. So that’s that. I’m not sure how well I’ve been able to bring Rappaccini’s beautiful, luxuriant and sinister garden to life. But at least I tried.

Luckily literature, as rich as any garden, holds a conucopia of alternative ideas we readers can tap into when we need a get-out-of-jail-free card. You might well think that I’ve accidentally recreated one of my favourite snippets of literature instead:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho


This week we’ve been challenged by the Daily Post to recreate a work of art. Check out other bloggers’ interpretations here.

If you’re curious to read Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, my inspiration, it’s freely available online.

If the idea of a poison garden intrigues you, make a note to visit Alnwick Garden in NE England. Visitors queue to be escorted through the poison garden by a guide, then are locked in for the duration of their visit, adding to the feeling of oppression. When we were there, the need to dodge flash storms of unseasonably wild weather gave extra piquancy, but I hope you’ll be blessed by a much balmier day.

For anyone starting to feel worried by plants, here’s a (not exhaustive but pretty wide ranging) list of poisonous plants on Wikipedia.

I also wanted to mention for any Beckett lovers that we saw a masterly Endgame in Glasgow in the gilded auditorium of the Citizen’s Theatre earlier this month, starring Corrie’s Peter and Roy. I highly recommend it for those with an acute sense of the absurd.

Disclaimer: Don’t mess with plants unless you are sure they are safe.

29 Replies to “Recreating Rappaccini’s Garden: an Eden of Poisonous Flowers”

    1. Alnwick have turned their garden into a theatrical experience. but if someone decided to have a health and safety purge of poisonous plants in public gardens, I don’t think there would be much left.

  1. What a great post and such beautiful photos. I have banned a few plants from the garden due to poison concerns, but only the ones which might be tempting to pets or children. I’ve always liked the idea of a malevolent garden. Poison and thorns would star!

    1. I suppose that depends on your perspective on foreign – it’s amusing to me that British actors are often cast as the baddies in American films.

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