BY: JESSICA BEUKER
The Alnwick Garden, which sits adjacent to Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England has become a must-see tourist attraction. The stunning complex of gardens encompasses 14 acres of lush greenery and colourful flowers, manicured topiaries, beautiful water fountains, a cherry orchard, a bamboo labyrinth and a multi-level treehouse. The castle served as the Hogwarts castle in the first two Harry Potter films. And if that’s not enough, it’s also home to the Poison Garden—where all of the plants can literally kill you.
Nestled within the greater Alnwick Garden, the Poison Garden lays behind big, black iron gates—the words “These plants can kill,” written above skull and crossbones. The words aren’t just meant to scare visitors either; behind the gates grow more than 100 different plants that can kill you just by tasting, touching, or even smelling them.
In 1995, Jane Percy became the Duchess of Northumberland after her husband became the 12th Duke following his brother’s death. With the title came the Alnwick Castle and shortly after taking up residence, Percy’s husband asked her to do something with the ravaged gardens, according to Smithsonian, which at the time were nothing more than a neglected lot of old Christmas trees.
Percy wanted to do something different, something that moved away from the idea of a standard garden. After visiting the Medici poison garden in Italy, she was inspired to create a space full of plants that could kills instead of heal. So, in 1996 Percy hired Jacques Wirtz, a landscape architect, and began transforming the area into what is now 14 acres of thriving landscape that attracts over 600,000 visitors each year.
Once Percy began collecting the plants for her poison garden, her only requirement was that they had to tell a good story. “I thought, ‘This is a way to interest children,’” she said to Smithsonian. “Children don’t care that aspirin comes from a bark of a tree. What’s really interesting is to know how a plant kills you, and how the patient dies, and what you feel like before you die.”
Because of the plants’ nature, visitors are obviously prohibited from smelling, touching or tasting any of the plants. Percy explained that people often think they’re being overdramatic when they talk about not smelling the plants, but only a few summers ago, seven people fainted from inhaling a plant’s toxic fumes. Some plants are caged, as they can kill or make you ill just by touching them. The garden itself is under 24-hour surveillance.
Percy said the most poisonous plants are usually the most common ones that people don’t realize are killers. For example, laurel hedge, which is found in almost every English garden, can be highly toxic. Other plants in the garden include Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), which appears attractive as it boasts sweet berries, but actually causes a bizarre delirium, and consumption of only two to five berries is likely lethal. Strychnos nux-vomica (Strychnine) is a tree that produces green-orange fruit with highly poisonous seeds and bark. Commonly used to kill rodents in some countries, the poison can be breathed in or absorbed through the skin. Conium maculatum (hemlock) is another plant found in the garden that disrupts the central nervous system. Ingestion of even small doses can result in respiratory collapse and death.
But Percy’s favourite plant is Brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet. She explained that Victorian ladies would often keep a flower from the plant on their card tables or add small amounts of the pollen to their tea to incite an LSD-like trip. “It’s an amazing aphrodisiac before it kills you,” she said to Smithsonian. “[Angel’s trumpet] is an amazing way to die because it’s quite pain-free.”
The entire idea behind the garden is to serve as an educational tool. Visitors can walk away with knowledge of which plants are toxic to them, and they will avoid those plants when out in the world. In addition to toxic plants, Percy also grows a variety of narcotic plants including poppies, cannabis, magic mushrooms and tobacco, which she uses as a starting point for drug education.