The Deadliest Garden in the World: Visit Alnwick’s Poison Garden in Northumberland, England

The mind reels to think of all the ear­ly humans who sac­ri­ficed them­selves, unwit­ting­ly, in the pre­his­toric quest to learn which plants were safe to eat, which were suit­able for heal­ing, and which would maim or kill who­ev­er who touched them. Even now, of course, the great major­i­ty of us rely on experts to make these dis­tinc­tions for us. Unless we’re steeped in field train­ing and/or folk knowl­edge, it’s safe to say most of us wouldn’t have a clue how to avoid poi­son­ing our­selves in the wild.

This need not over­ly con­cern us on a vis­it to The Poi­son Gar­den, how­ev­er. Nes­tled in man­i­cured lanes at Alnwick Gar­den, “one of north England’s most beau­ti­ful attrac­tions,” Natasha Geil­ing writes at Smith­son­ian, the Poi­son Gar­den includes such infa­mous killers as hem­lock, Atropa bel­ladon­na (a.k.a. Dead­ly Night­shade), and Strych­nos nux-vom­i­ca, the source of strych­nine, in its col­lec­tions. Just don’t touch the plants and you should be fine. Oh, and also, guides tell vis­i­tors, “don’t even smell them.” It should go with­out say­ing that tast­ing is out.

The Poi­son Gar­den is hard­ly the main attrac­tion at Alnwick, in Northum­ber­land. The cas­tle itself was used as the set­ting for Hog­warts in the first two Har­ry Pot­ter films. The 14 acres of con­tro­ver­sial mod­ern land­scape gardens–designed by the flam­boy­ant Jane Per­cy, Duchess of Northum­ber­land–have become famous in their own right, in part for vio­lat­ing “England’s archi­tec­tur­al pat­ri­mo­ny,” a scan­dal you can read about here. (One gar­den design­er and crit­ic called it a “pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment, the dream of a girl who looks like Posh and lives at Hog­warts.”)

The duchess responds to crit­i­cism of her extrav­a­gant designs with a shrug. “A lot of my ideas come from Las Vegas and Euro Dis­ney,” she admits. The Poi­son Gar­den has a much more ven­er­a­ble source, the Orto Botan­i­co in Pad­ua, the old­est extant aca­d­e­m­ic botan­i­cal gar­den, found­ed in 1545, with its own poi­son gar­den that dates to the time of the Medicis. After a vis­it, Per­cy “became enthralled with the idea of cre­at­ing a gar­den of plants that could kill instead of heal,” writes Geil­ing. She thought of it, specif­i­cal­ly, as “a way to inter­est chil­dren.” As the duchess says:

Chil­dren don’t care that aspirin comes from the 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.

What child doesn’t won­der about such things? And if we teach kids how to avoid poi­so­nous plants, they can keep the rest of us alive should we have to retreat into the woods and become for­agers again. The Poi­son Gar­den also grows plants from which com­mon recre­ation­al drugs derive, like cannabis and cocaine, “as a jump­ing-off point for drug edu­ca­tion,” Geil­ing points out.

Pro­vid­ed vis­i­tors fol­low the rules, the gar­den is safe, “although some peo­ple still occa­sion­al­ly faint from inhal­ing tox­ic fumes,” Alnwick Garden’s web­site warns. And while it’s designed to attract and edu­cate kids, there’s a lit­tle some­thing for every­one. Percy’s favorite poi­so­nous plant, for exam­ple, Brug­man­sia, or angel’s trum­pet, acts as a pow­er­ful aphro­disi­ac before it kills. She explains with glee that “Vic­to­ri­an ladies would often keep a flower from the plant on their card tables and add small amounts of its pollen to their tea to incite an LSD-like trip.” You can learn many oth­er fas­ci­nat­ing facts about plants that kill, and do oth­er things, at Alnwick’s Poi­son Gar­den when the world opens up again.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Oliv­er Sacks Pro­motes the Heal­ing Pow­er of Gar­dens: They’re “More Pow­er­ful Than Any Med­ica­tion”

Denmark’s Utopi­an Gar­den City Built Entire­ly in Cir­cles: See Astound­ing Aer­i­al Views of Brønd­by Have­by

What Voltaire Meant When He Said That “We Must Cul­ti­vate Our Gar­den”: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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