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. Mike A – I agree, there are many poisonous plants commonly used in gardening. Don’t eat those flowers, and wash your hands after pruning them. 🙂

    When I first read the article, it appeared that this plant was so toxic that the slightest touch could kill you. That seemed to be a great risk to the gardeners. And it made me wonder if they had been sufficiently warned. But now it seems that this IS related to common garden Monkshood, although I do not know what particular variety or if it really is that poisonous to the touch. It definitely puts the story in a new light. I hope they find out what happened.

    Tyger – I linked the Poison Garden as an example of people collecting dangerous plants. I do understand that a private garden not open to the public is a different matter. And I agree that it would be absurd for all non edible plants to be banned.

    1. Karen, I don’t think ANY plants should be banned, edible or non-edible. Spend the same money on educating people about plants, instead of hiring politicians to write laws banning things some people don’t want to be available so as to satisfy their own agenda, and everyone will be better off. Knowledge helps prevent stupid behavior (even though there is no cure for it). Laws don’t.

  2. I have a couple Angel’s Trumpet plants in my yard that were here when we bought the house. A neighboring town banned their cultivation a number of years ago because portions of the plant can be used to brew an hallucinogenic tea. But the blossoms are beautiful and produce a wonderfully sweet scent in the evening. They are not dangerous to the touch, however.

  3. Karen S, your link is not related to this case. The estate involved is not open to the public for tours. Homicidal maniacs will get ideas no matter what precautions the government or anyone else imposes.

    Many other plants and flowers that people often have around are poisonous. Geraniums, poinsettias, “Sacred” Datura, and many others. It should be the individual’s responsibility to know about these, and to keep his or her children away from them, the same as with any other risk or danger.

  4. Rhonda:

    You brought up an excellent point. Here is the link to acontium in White Flower Farm (sold out.) They sell a Korean variety, which is different than in the above story. However, there is a single line quote that all parts of the plant are poisonous, and should not be planted near vegetable gardens.

    I just assumed that the plant in the story was different than common garden Monkshood, but perhaps I was wrong. If the owners bought a flower from a nursery with this little warning, they would not have the idea that if you touched it you could die, or give special warnings to the gardeners.

    I wonder if he confused it with an edible flower, and ate one, or if this variety is really an extra toxic one.

    http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com/20476-product.html

  5. Rhonda:

    I get that catalog, too. I just assumed it must be a different flower with the same name. Is it really the same one?

  6. Tyger:

    I see what you’re saying.

    And there are many ornamental plants commonly used in the US that are poisonous – oleander, for instance. A vet told me he found a 2 year old, healthy, robust stallion dead with the leaves still in his mouth. It would be absurd to outlaw any non edible plant.

    My problem is when homeowners have plants that can be deadly through skin absorption, and then hire gardeners to tend the plants. It’s a risk if they don’t have some type of barrier to avoid accidents, especially if this is in a front yard.

    In this case, I don’t know all the facts. Was this a private courtyard garden? I assume a landed British owner lived in a secluded estate, without the risk of a suburban front yard. Were the gardeners warned?

    I do think it’s a terrible risk to cultivate plants that can be deadly simply by brushing up against them, but I do not know what the legal outcome will be.

  7. Simms:

    True that most poisonings with this plant occur from ingestion. But some people are more sensitive than others, and it is documented to have such severe reactions from skin absorption.

    Forensically, I hope they can determine what actually happened, solve the case, and give the family as much closure as possible.

  8. Laws restricting what a home owner can have in his or her garden, or any requirement for placing some labeling or warning notices for poisonous flowers, is just one more example of how the government is going beyond what is necessary or desirable for individual freedoms. What a person plants or has planted in his or her own garden is none of the government’s business (unless the plants leave the individual’s property).

    One might infer from the facts, a rich land owner who hires a gardener, instead of tending the garden himself, may know little about plants or what is actually planted in his garden. Otherwise, it would be a point of pride for the garden owner to know and tend to his garden. A gardener, on the other hand, should know what plants are dangerous, as common knowledge in his profession. If a gardener is poisoned by a plant in a garden he takes care of for money, the responsibility for his poisoning should be on the gardener, whether or not the garden owner is aware of the poisonous plants in his garden. They might have been “weeds” blown in by the wind from somewhere else, or planted by the gardener himself. That part would be irrelevant. A professional gardener should be educated to the risks of the business, the same as a pest exterminator is.

    Another good question to ask, could the gardener have been held responsible if the home owner had been poisoned by those flowers?

  9. I recently read about this. There is no blood sample confirming the toxin was in his bloodstream. The sample taken when he was admitted had been destroyed, and taking one after death is useless because it would have cleared within 24 hours, leaving only the damage caused.

    It is very risky to plant such toxic plants.

    I know a Duchess has a Poison Garden, which is fenced, with skull and cross bone signs, and signs warning visitors not to breathe the fumes. And yet still people pass out when they inhale near the garden during certain times of the year. I believe she even grows Angels Trumpet, which brings you to ecstasy as you die, according to legend. Like a terrible lie.

    I can see why it would be interesting to have a beautiful, deadly garden, but the risk is very great, especially when you can’t care for it yourself, and must hire outside help.

    The parents of this gardener lost their son, and they have good reason to suspect that it was so the owners can enjoy a beautiful, deadly flower.

    They should have fenced it in to avoid accidents.

  10. Simms,

    Was it……………m u r d e r ? Or suicide?

    That’s what popped into my analysis. Like you stated, it is very unlikely the gardener was poisoned just by brushing against a flower.

  11. If you read the articles from news sources that aren’t rags like the Daily Mail, you’ll see that it is very unlikely the gardener was poisoned just by brushing against a flower.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-29949275

    Additionally, some gardeners have free rein to cultivate whatever they want. He could have planted it himself. If he had such a severe reaction, it is most likely he ingested the roots. Was it……………m u r d e r ?

  12. This is a common plant in neighborhood nurseries and garden catalogues, recommended for shade gardens. Check out the White Flower Farm catalogue on line.

  13. This is very interesting. Is it a common meadow flower? Growing up in the North Irish countryside in the fifties the field next to us would sometimes be a mass of meadow flowers. I remember flowers that look like the one pictured. (Not bluebells). My Mum always said, “Don’t touch the blue ones. They’re poisonous”.

  14. Facts are “may have been” the victim of the deadly wolfsbane plant, a coroner has heard. Nathan Greenaway, 33, “may have brushed” against the flower aconitum, also known as Devil’s Helmet
    The roots are where the highest level of poison is found, although it is still found in the flower. “If there were cuts” on his hand, it would enter his bloodstream and affect his heart very quickly.

    Forensic Discovery Problem:

    Maggie Bloom, who is representing the family, said in the pre-inquest hearing yesterday that the initial blood sample had been destroyed –
    despite being against hospital policy – and that later samples that were retained could be useless as the poison leaves the body within a day.

    Conspiracy Theory Angle: Someone deliberately poisoned Nathan…..One of the staff, the butler maybe?

  15. Does someone who employs people in their garden have the right to grow such a poisoness plaint unless the plant is in a physically segregated and well marked area? If they were the only one around the plant it would be their risk but once they bring others into their garden, their “rights” are more restricted, in my opinion.

  16. This plant just showed up in an Australian murder mystery. I guess it get around. They were suggesting that the gardener wear gloves while dealing with the plant.;

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