Humans have lived among poisonous plants since the dawn of time. That doesn’t mean we’ve adapted to this coexistence. From the poison hemlock that killed Socrates, to white snakeroot that was responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, poisonous plants have been responsible for countless human deaths throughout history. To this day poison plant exposure yields upwards of 60,000 calls per year to poison control hotlines with more than two thirds of those cases involving children under the age of six.
But there is a place where one can safely enjoy the beauty of the most toxic and intoxicating plants from around the world, the Poison Garden in Alnwick, England. You’ll find the assassinating assemblage in a small area nestled along the foreboding walls of neighboring Alnwick Castle. The lethal and narcotic plants are housed behind a well marked black iron gate, with the most dangerous among them growing inside giant cages.
The collection hosts some of the heavy hitters of the poisonous plant world. Varieties like Rosary Pea (Abrus precatorius) contain a protein called abrin, which is extremely toxic to humans. Cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus), a rather innocuous evergreen shrub, produces hydrogen cyanide. Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) Just 4 four seeds from this stunner can kill a small child. Those are just some of the collection planted in this murderous medley. Psilocybin mushrooms, opium poppies and even cannabis are among the verdant specimens.
Whether if be the root, seed, stem, leaf or flower each plant in the garden produces poisons that cause all manner of maladies, including death. Many of the plants in the collection happen to be quite common and are often seen growing in many gardens, you just have to be able to recognize them.
Plants like oleander contain cardiac glycocides that will actually stop a beating heart. Aconitum also known as wolfsbane or monkshood, belongs to the buttercup family, a mainstay in many flower beds and cutting gardens. The danger of this plant comes from its roots. The liquid contained therein can cause cardiac paralysis and heart failure.
While visitors to the Poison Garden are prohibited from touching, tasting and even smelling any of the plants there it’s been reported that every so often a visitor faints from inhaling the plants’ toxic emanations. The Poison Garden at Alnwick is part of a larger 12 acre area that is the passion project of Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland. She and her family took up residence at Alnwick Castle in 1995. At that point it had been in the Percy family for over 700 years but with Duchess Percy at the helm things quickly began to take shape. Fun fact, Alnwick Castle also served as the setting for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter movies.
The Duchess’s trip to the Medici poison garden in Italy as well as a tour of an archeological site in Scotland is said to have inspired the flourishing 12 acre botanical wonder. Alnwick Castle Garden is also home to the world’s largest Taihaku Cherry Orchard, a Grand Cascade fountain which consists of 120 water jets and the world’s largest treehouse restaurant and, most notably, a poison garden to die for!!!
Derek, Eric. The Alnwick Poison Garden: 10 Things Visitors Will Only Discover There. November 10, 2019.
Geiling, Natasha. Step Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Garden (If You Dare). September 22, 2014.