As children, many of us wasted away hours traipsing through our parents’ gardens, pretending to be princes or princesses, witches, dragons, and all kinds of other fantastical things. Our imaginations ran wild, and with such a beautiful backdrop like the sweet-smelling flowers planted by our parents, it was the perfect scene to set the mood.
The world is full of many different gardens that range in size and beauty. One such place is the Alnwick Garden, located in North East England. This garden, however, is unlike the ones we all grew up playing in for more reasons than one. For behind all the roses, and tulips, and tiger-lilies, far at the back, a black, iron gate is found, warning all those brave enough to enter. Because The Alnwick garden is very beautiful indeed. But it’s also the world’s deadliest garden.
In 1995, when Ralph Percy became the 12th Duke of Northumberland, his wife, Jane Percy (now the Duchess of Northumberland) obtained ownership of Alnwick Castle’s garden. Her husband instructed her to do something about the garden, which had fallen into an unfortunate state of disuse over the years. Not wanting to have just any lovely, traditional garden, the Duchess, taking inspiration from a trip to Italy’s poison garden, Medici, decided to gather as many of the world’s most lethal plants as she could find, and plant them for her own collection. Today, the Alnwick Poison Garden gathers around 600,000 visitors a year, so the Duchess was clearly onto something.
The garden is full of all manner of poisonous and deadly plants. With a range of different plants, from the simple cannabis plants, to those much more vile, such as Amorphophallus Titanum - also known as ‘the corpse flower’ which is named for the fact that it smells like a dead body. The symptoms and effects the plants in this garden have on people also vary. Some simply smell horrible, while others have horrifying, physical effects: Hemlock causes muscular paralysis, including the muscles required in breathing. Foxgloves, in addition to hallucinations, also cause vomiting, blurry vision, seizures, and death. And one of my personal favourites, Atropa Belladonna, more commonly known as “Deadly Nightshade”, has the ability to cause dilation of the pupils, hallucinations, rashes, and death.
In the past, these plants have been primarily used for innocent means, leaving the user to learn a little too late of the real effects. Deadly Nightshade, for example, was often used by Venetian women in drops from the berries juice, because as mentioned above, it dilated their pupils, and they believed this made them more attractive. Too bad it also made them go blind, in addition to its other less-than-pleasant effects mentioned above.
Angel’s Trumpet was thought to be a strong aphrodisiac, and Victorian women often added a little of its pollen to their tea in order to experience its high. Unbeknownst to them, Angel’s Trumpet, in addition to hallucinations and delirium, also causes comas and death. Not exactly worth the high if you ask me.
Because of the degrees of deadliness of all the plants contained within, Alnwick’s poison garden is littered with warning signs, discouraging all visitors from eating, touching, smelling, or even getting too close to the plants. However, there are always those that choose not to listen, and it should come as no surprise a number of people pass out in the gardens each year, and there are countless health and safety reports written up. Word to the wise: don’t ignore the signs.
The signs, however, are not the garden’s only means of security for the general public against these plants. The garden was granted special permission to grow coca plants (cocaine) and marijuana plants (weed), both of which are kept in metal cages within the garden because of the effects they can have on the human body. Duchess Jane Percy uses these plants to get across an anti-drug message to children who tour the garden, telling Smithsonian Magazine that “it’s a way of educating children without having them realize they’re being educated.”
Ultimately, that’s the goal of the garden: to showcase something unique, but also to teach everyone who visits about the world’s most dangerous plants, and what they can do. In fact, not every plant in the garden is just lethal - some actually have other uses too that, when handled properly, can actually be quite helpful.
Take, for instance, the opium poppy. It has a wide array of uses that range from harmless to harmful, depending on which part of the plant you use, and in which concentration. Its ripe seeds can be harvested as an ingredient in some baked goods, oils and seasonings, and can even be used as birdseed. The capsules of its unripe seeds, however, fall on the more dangerous end, as the milky latex within is what is used to produce drugs such as opium, morphine, codeine, and heroin, all of which have positive medical uses, but are lethal when overused.
Of course, not everyone to ever have made use of these kinds of plants used them for pure reasons. In London in 2010, a young woman was arrested for crushing up Monkshood seeds and sprinkling them in a curry for her ex-lover.
Thankfully, no one has ever died in the garden. So if you’re like me, and itching for a chance (no pun intended) to get into this garden and have a peek around, check out places such as Trip Advisor. Just remember to heed the warning signs, lest you be one of the many visitors to pass out among the beautiful, but deadly plants.
I couldn’t even begin to cover all of the plants in this awe-inspiring garden, but feel free to leave a comment below about your favourite deadly plant, and what exactly makes it so harmful. Perhaps I’ll even re-visit this topic in the future, and do a post on some of the specific plants behind the black iron gates.
Maggie Kendall spent the first fifteen years of her life furiously avoiding all things horror, but then her friend forced her to watch Paranormal Activity, and there’s been no turning back. She still checks the bathroom mirror for Bloody Mary before getting in the shower.