We all know that among the features that make England famous in the world there are the green lawns and the perfect beautiful gardens. But there is an exception. The garden of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland is not exactly an idyllic place: the sign at the garden gate reads “These Plants Can Kill”!
Behind big black gates, the carefully curated garden contains about 100 popular killers like Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Strychnos nux-vomica (strychnine), and Conium maculatum (hemlock).
Guides explain their deadly properties while keeping ne’er-do-wells and curious children away from the plants, warning them: “Do not touch any of the plants, don’t even smell them. There are plants here that can kill you!”
The story began in 1995, when the duchess, then 36 and known as Jane Percy, was living with her husband, Ralph, a 38-year-old property surveyor, and their four children in a farm house half an hour north of Alnwick. On October on the same year Mr. Percy’s brother Harry, the 11th Duke of Northumberland, was found dead in London from an overdose of amphetamines. Ralph Percy was suddenly the 12th duke, with holdings that included 120,000 acres of land, 171 tenant farms and 700 houses and cottages, along with Alnwick Castle, with its collections of Meissen china, Louis XIV furniture and paintings by Titian, Caneletto and Van Dyke.
At first, the Duchess was just looking for something to do in her new role. On a walk near the castle in late 1995, she wandered with her dogs through the site of the former gardens, a walled enclosure that had been planted for 40 years with spruce trees, part of a commercial lumber business that helped support the estate.
As the Duchess inspected her newly inherited gardens, much of which had been meticulously designed by the famous landscape designer Capability Brown, she came across an overgrown, neglected section. Formal gardens had been planted in that spot by the first duke in 1750, and it passed through several incarnations until World War II, when it was converted from a place of Italian ornamental splendor into a victory garden of vegetables. However, by 1950, it was abandoned. She decided to restore it, not to its former glory, but into a new, modern garden.
So, the Duchess of Northumberland conceived the idea of a garden full of lethal plants (no touching, no sniffing and presumably no cuttings) and went to Padua where the Medici cultivated noxious horticulture as a means of dealing with scheming opponents.
The poison garden opened in 2005. Wanting in part to hark back to old apothecary’s gardens, the duchess shied away from planting healing medicinals and instead sought out hard-to-get deadly poisons. Also included in the gardens are narcotic plants like opium poppies, cannabis, magic mushrooms, and tobacco. Many of these required special government permission to grow, because the danger posed by poisonous plants is very real (some can kill or sicken just through touch).
In the garden there is a deadly nightshade, which disposition of the berries is the work of the devil, it is said, or strychnine, sometimes known as the inheritance plant. It was a very high-class poison in Venice. Young brides would use it to dispatch their wealthy old husbands, while less aristocratic but similarly homicidal women in 19th century Britain made use of it because it was readily available as rat poison.
The nicotine is “the biggest killer of them all”, while hemlock, famously used to kill Socrates, numbs the toes and the fingertips. It reaches the chest, paralyses the lungs and you simply stop breathing. But it has no effect on the brain. Strychnos nux-vomica is toxic, leading to convulsions and death via suffocation. Castorbeans inhibits cells from producing proteins, causing pain, inflammation, hemorrhaging in the digestive systems, and vomiting blood, while digitalis causes nausea, yellowed vision, blurry vision, seizures, and death.
Some plants are caged, and the garden is secured each evening behind gates under a 24-hour security watch.
Other parts of the garden include an enormous multi-level treehouse and a bamboo labyrinth, all with the looming Alnwick Castle on the background, probably familiar having seen it stand in as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter movies.