In honor of Halloween…..welcome to the Poison Garden! In 1995, Jane Percy became the Duchess of Northumberland, a county in northeastern England that stretches to the border with Scotland, after her husband’s brother died unexpectedly. With the title came the Alnwick Castle, the traditional seat of the Duke of Northumberland (it also served as the setting for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films). After the family took up residence in the castle, Percy’s husband asked her to do something with the gardens, which at the time were a disused commercial forestry boasting rows and rows of Christmas trees.
“I think he thought, ‘That will keep her quiet, she’ll just plant a few roses and that’ll be it,'” the duchess says. But Percy did more than plant a few roses. In 1996, she hired Jacques Wirtz, a landscape architect who has worked with the Tuileries in Paris and the gardens of the French president’s residence, to help re-imagine the Alnwick Garden. Today, the gardens encompass 14 acres and attract over 600,000 visitors each year, making them one of North England’s most popular tourist attractions.
Today we are talking about the Poison Garden which is kept behind black iron gates and is a place the visitors are told NOT to stop and smell the flowers. The Poison Garden is home to 100 infamous killers. The garden, one of the many phases of the multiple gardens opened in 2005.
The duchess thought she might want to include an apothecary garden, but a trip to Italy set her on a slightly different course. After visiting the infamous Medici poison garden, the duchess became enthralled with the idea of creating a garden of plants that could kill instead of heal. Another trip, this one to the archeological site of the largest hospital in medieval Scotland, where the duchess learned about soporific sponges soaked in henbane, opium and hemlock used to anesthetize amputees during 15th century surgeries, reinforced her interest in creating a garden of lethal plants.
“I thought, ‘This is a way to interest children,'” she says. “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.”
“What’s extraordinary about the plants is that it’s the most common ones that people don’t know are killers,” the duchess says. Visitors are often surprised to learn that the laurel hedge, nearly ubiquitous in English gardens, can be highly toxic. But some visitors have had experience with laurel’s sinister side, the duchess has heard a few talk about how, after loading up their cars with pruned laurel leaves to take to the dump, drivers have fallen asleep behind the wheel of their car from the toxic fumes the branches emit.
Because of the plants’ dangerous qualities, visitors to the Poison Garden are prohibited from smelling, touching or tasting any of them. Still, even with guidelines in place, visitors can fall victim to the plants. This past summer, seven people reportedly fainted from inhaling toxic fumes while walking through the garden. “People think we’re being overdramatic when we talk about (not smelling the plants), but I’ve seen the health and safety reports,” the duchess says.
Have your every heard of Nux vomica? It is the latin name for strychnine. Hemlock, a very powerful poison, can be used as an antidote to strychnine.
I think most people are at least familiar with the name of Castor Oil, which was used to help children grow up to be strong and healthy once upon a time. It is made from the plant Ricinus communis, a single seed from the same plant will kill an adult in the most horrible way. Ricin causes nausea, severe vomiting, convulsions and subsequent disintegration of the kidneys, liver and spleen…
Other poisonous plants might be less well known to visitors, but are no less potent. One of the duchess’s favorite plants is Brugmansia, or angel’s trumpet, a member of the Solanaceae family (which includes deadly nightshade) that grows in the wild in South America. “It’s an amazing aphrodisiac before it kills you,” she says, explaining 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. “(Angel’s trumpet) is an amazing way to die because it’s quite pain-free,” the duchess says. “A great killer is usually an incredible aphrodisiac”.
Yikes!!! But….so interesting no?