The Poison Garden in Alnwick is Beautiful (And Terrifying)
Shuttered by Gothic iron gates emblazoned with skulls and the warning “These Plants Can Kill”, and lying in wait at the end of an ivy-covered tunnel straight out of a Harry Potter novel, lies a beautiful English glade that’s to die for – literally.
For over a decade now, England’s breathtaking Alnwick Gardens have been home to the Poison Garden, a toxic paradise inspired by estates in Padua, Italy where the Medici family sowed the sickening seeds needed to kill off their rivals.
Over 100 lethal plants call the Poison Garden home. Some of them are familiar garden plants, such as foxgloves, belladonna, and poppies – while others, such as ricinus communis, are notorious as the sources of chemicals like ricin. As far as illegal specimens go, visitors can view cannabis, coca, psyclobin mushrooms, opium poppies – a subtle anti-drug initiative overseen by the garden, which has a license to grow these controlled substances for educational purposes.
“I wondered why so many gardens around the world focused on the healing power of plants rather than their ability to kill… I felt that most children would be more interested in hearing how a plant killed, [and] how long it would take you to die if you ate it.”
However, Alnwick is less about grand spectacle as it is unsettling familiarity, a morbid lens through which to view plants we’d find harmless otherwise. When Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, dedicated the garden in 2005, she remarked, “‘I wondered why so many gardens around the world focused on the healing power of plants rather than their ability to kill… I felt that most children I knew would be more interested in hearing how a plant killed, how long it would take you to die if you ate it and how gruesome and painful the death might be.”
Placid as they may seem, some of the residents of the poison garden are capable of doing damage if touched or smelled in the slightest. Many species are kept within locked cages to shield visitors, others planted far off the trodden path. Even the laurel hedges running rampant in the countryside (and in the garden) pose an issue to those who tend them; the fumes emitted by the branches when cut cause drowsiness. In order to prevent themselves from suffering a similar fate, the horticulturalists at the Poison Garden wear gloves and face masks when handling these dastardly specimens.
Awash in deadly beauty, the Poison Garden has some truly remarkable plants in its midst. Datura, a fragile white flower shaped like an angel’s trumpet, is a powerful aphrodisiac and poison; in Victorian times, ladies would tap its pollen into their tea cups and experience psychedelic episodes. A little further down the path beckons Laburnum, a goldenrod bush awash in duck-yellow blossoms that cause you to foam at the mouth if you so much as nibble on them. Behind the skull-laden gates, even the majestic clematis is foe rather than friend: according to the plaques, the plants are capable of causing ulcers!
There’s a reason the Poison Garden is such a hit among Brits and garden lovers the world over: plant or no, there are few things more engrossing than staring down a natural-born killer, especially one that you may have been trodding over for all these years. And just as viewing a great white shark or grizzly bear grants one a deeper sense of appreciation for the world’s biodiversity and all the processes that keep it rich, beholding a paradise of poison can instill the same sense of wonder. For kids, garden fans, and daredevils alike, the proof is in the poison.