In 1974 physicians at Kaiser Permanente Fontana (Calif.) Medical Center planted a most unusual garden at the center’s entrance. Behind a fence and locked gate they displayed 17 common poisonous plants found in homes and gardens, and called the collection the Sinister Garden — complete with a warning skull.
Pediatrician Guy Hartman, MD, (1922-2008) was concerned about the high number of local cases — as many as 300 in 1973 — that resulted from ingesting poisonous vegetation. “Children who are 4 years of age are our most frequent patients,” he told reporters. “This is the age of curiosity for these youngsters who are learning about their world by touching, feeling, and tasting just about everything.”
Dr. Hartman became interested in poisonous plants as a Boy Scout master in Southern California. "While working on a Scout project, we discovered that many common ornamental house and garden plants contain enough poison that, if accidentally eaten, could kill an entire family." [i]
His garden was actively used for teaching. All plants were labeled and keyed to an exhibit sign explaining what the plants were named, which parts were poisonous, and what symptoms would occur if the plants were eaten. Busloads of children were brought to the garden to hear his warnings about castor beans, oleander, and wild mushrooms, to name a few. In 1976 the positive response led to the garden more than doubling in size, to 49 plants.
Around that time the pediatrics department produced a short video to broadcast the message, using a hand puppet named Amigo to charm the children. They also published a seven-page booklet, Welcome to the Sinister Garden.
In 1986 Kaiser Permanente’s Rockwood Clinic in Gresham, Oregon, installed its own garden, also as a response to local children’s poisonings. And in 1988, the physician-in-charge Thomas Hartman, MD, (no relation) planted a sinister garden at the old Bellflower (now Downey) service area at the Kaiser Permanente Imperial Medical Offices.
The garden in Fontana continues to be maintained and modernized, with landscape architecture students from nearby Cal Poly Pomona using it for design projects
[i] “Enlarged Sinister Garden Flourishes,” Kaiser Permanente Insight (Southern California), Fall 1976