Take A Toxic Tour Through England's Poison Garden

Alnwick Castle, nestled above the frigid moors of Northumberland in England, has an air of dark mysticism about it. Maybe it's the fact that it's one of the most ancient and greatest keeps in all of Albion. Maybe it's because it was used as the setting of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the first two Harry Potter movies. Or maybe it's because, if you wander deep enough into its serpentine gardens, you'll find a black gate with a skull and bones on it that warns you are about to enter the most poisonous place on the earth.

Jennifer Boyer, Flickr
If you eat a plant, better believe they'll eat you back.
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When was the last time you stopped and smelled the flowers? If it was in Alnwick's Poison Garden, then it definitely was your last time. From belladonna to blue ensign to monkshood, every single of its 100+ poisonous plants has the potential to put you in the ground. Its gardeners tend to their caustic crop decked out in full hazmat gear while visitors are carefully led through with strict instructions not to taste, touch or smell anything -- though even that doesn't prevent several people from having to be dragged out each year, overwhelmed by the miasmic clouds lingering in this Garden of Evil.

Trish Steel, Wikimedia Commons
There's a reason the paths are extra-wide and it's not American tourists.
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But just because looking at a few castor beans is enough to give you kidney failure doesn't mean these plants also can't give you a real good time. Aside from housing your common garden variety mankillers (seriously, a lot of these lethally poisonous plants can be found in your backyard), the Poison Garden has special dispensation from the English Crown to grow the good shit, from marijuana and magic mushrooms to coca(ine) plants and opium poppies. There's even Brugmansia, better knowns as angel's trumpet. The LSD-like South American flower acts as a powerful horny-making hallucinogen -- unless you take half a seed too much, and it drives you into a lethal psychotic frenzy. This, incidentally, is the garden's dark creator's poison of choice, who delights in the fact that "a great killer is usually an incredible aphrodisiac."

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That quote isn't from a 4th-century yakka witch but the current Duchess of Northumberland Jane Percy, an entrepreneur, amateur taxidermist, and expert on natural poisons. In 2005, after her brother-in-law, the former Duke, died under mysterious circumstances from an overdose (nothing suspicious about that, nope), she and her husband were handed the Dukedom, and she took control of the Alnwick Castle's vast gardens. Looking for a gimmick to appeal to tourists, Her Grace took inspiration from the poison gardens of the scheming Medici family in Renaissance Italy and sought to replicate them in her own backyard. "Children don't care that aspirin comes from a bark of a tree," the witchy duchess crows. "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."

The Joy Of All Things, Wikimedia Commons
The castle may be Hogwarts, but the duchess is pure Slytherin.
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Like their alchemical mistress, the Poison Garden's caretakers possess that Adams Family level of toxic whimsy. When asked what's his favorite thing about working in the Poison Garden, Head Gardener Trevor Jones will reply: "It's a good way to get rid of your wife." But first and foremost, the garden is a place of education with its twitchy visitors glued to every word their guide utters, learning much about the dangers of both drugs and the poisonous plants loitering in their home gardens. Sadly, the garden has long-shuttered its black gates due to Covid restrictions (heaven forbid you should come down with something in the Poison Garden). Hopefully, soon, it will once again open and be able to receive fertilizer. Did I say fertilizer? I meant visitors.

For more touchy toxicity, you can always join Cedric on Twitter.

Top Image: Amanda Slater/Wiki Commons, EoRdE6/Wiki Commons, David Clark, Geography

 

 

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