Death of English Gardener Linked To Wolfsbane Plant

220px-Aconitum_variegatum_110807fThere is a tragic and rather bizarre fatality at a large English estate where gardener Nathan Greenaway, 33, died after being rushed to the hospital. The cause appears to be a plant that many may recall from medieval stories — wolfsbane (aka Devil’s helmet, monkshood, leopard’s bane, women’s bane, devil’s helmet or blue rocket). Aconitum is so poisonous that even if brushed against without protection it can cause can vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea, heart palpitations, and, in severe cases, paralysis of the heart and airways. The case would present an interesting tort action in the United States against the retired venture capitalist who owns the $6 million estate. The question is whether Christopher and Kathy Ogilvie Thompson were negligent to have such a lethal plant on the premises if there were no barriers or warnings. The name aconitum comes from the Greek meaning “without struggle”.


A member of the buttercup family of ranunculaceae, Wolfsbane was once used to kill wolves due to this lethality.

Greenaway died of organ failure and his father has been pursuing the theory that it was the plant given the absence of any other explanation. A histopathologist testified at the hearing testified that the flower “more likely than not” caused Greenaway’s death. The owner’s lawyer however expressed skepticism and noted that the blood sample taken when Greenaway was admitted to the hospital has been destroyed. This alone is rather bizarre. Why would a blood sample in a mysterious death be destroyed? The problem is that wolfsbane seems almost designed for murder. It’s toxin is virtually undetectable after a day in the blood.

The knowing inclusion of such a plant in a garden raises some legitimate legal questions as to whether gardeners and other workers were warned of the danger. Clearly the Thomspons have every right to have such plants in their extensive gardens, but the danger is hidden except to those familiar with the plant. Indeed, I cannot imagine having any children or animals on the property with such plants present. It is not clear from the accounts whether in fact Greenaway knew of the plant and was warned. As a gardener, he could be expected to have such knowledge. There is also the question of whether the plant could have grown wild (it reportedly thrives in garden soil and likes the shade), though by the look of this garden it seems a well-tended horticultural space.

30 thoughts on “Death of English Gardener Linked To Wolfsbane Plant”

  1. Of course there is no justification to ban these plants, ingesting various parts of them will only kill you, it’s not as if they were mildly intoxicating or anything truly dangerous like that!r

    1. WrxDave, the mildly intoxicating plants I’m sure you are referring to should not be banned, either. Particularly when tobacco and drinks made by fermenting corn, barley, and hops and similar plants are perfectly legal. A hundred years ago, before the governments started concentrating on limiting freedoms for commercial and religious reasons, hemp was found to be better than wood pulp for making paper. Big newspapers of the time, who were heavily invested in the paper (from forest products) industries, leaned on the federal government to make hemp production illegal so they could protect their profits. By denying that marijuana had any medicinal purposes, the feds and the states began outlawing it entirely, not just for recreational use. It’s taken the Great Recession to put economic pressure on governments these days and get them to start making hemp and marijuana legal again so they can regulate and tax it. Funny, how the flow of money controls almost everything.

  2. Tyger – I agree. I don’t think they should be banned. I hope they can find out what happened. The question is was the gardener warned properly, and is there legal liability.

    I can’t imagine what his parents must be going through – so many questions, and burying their son in what was either a preventable accident or possibly something worse.

    1. Karen, it’s my contention that as a gardener, he should have been aware of the potential dangers of any of the plants under his care. The property owner should have no liability for his death. Knowing the laws today, where burglars can sue a property owner if they fall and break a leg in the house they are robbing, he probably will be sued. And then his home owner’s insurance will pay the award and everyone will go away satisfied, but unhappy.

  3. Okay, so the guy may have died from a flower, and his lawyer is named “Bloom”??? And to think some people believe there is no God! Well, there is, and he obviously wants me to do an Irish Poem!

    Bane Capital???
    An Irish Poem by Squeeky Fromm

    There once was a lawyer named Bloom,
    Whose client now lies in his tomb.
    A gardener, you know,
    His last words? “Hoe! Hoe! Hoe!”
    Sort of oddly ironic, j’assume. . .

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  4. If the estate’s gardener doesn’t know what the plant is and its deadly propensities, how in the world are you going to hold the owner responsible. I get it if the gardener was a guest on the estate, but as the person most responsible the plants growing on the estate, . . . I’m not seeing the liability.

  5. I can’t even imagine how one would care for such a plant, but I’m not a trained gardener. I have only a Master Gardener’s certificate from a western state and we didn’t cover this plant. Agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Turley-no children or animals could possibly be allowed anywhere near those beds.

  6. Anyone want to go mushroom hunting? I don’t which ones are good to eat or the poisonous ones that will kill you.

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