Enter at your own risk. The Alnwick Poison Garden is home to around 100 plant species, each more deadly than the last. Laburnum, Monkshood, Belladonna, and Helleborus Odorus are only a few plants to watch out for during your visit. The garden's contents are meticulously guarded with sizable black iron gates, only opening for guided tours. During this tour, you must not touch, smell or taste any plants, for the results may be fatal. Will you dare to come inside?
Although the Garden has more recently gained a surge in popularity, it was first developed all the way back in 1750 by the first Duke of Northumberland. It was later expanded by the 3rd Duke, a plant collector, as well as those that came after him in order to expand it into the wonderland of sprawling exotic specimens similar to that which we can see today. Farther down the road, there was a particular stumble in this road. That is, its descend into desrepair after the Second World War, in which several parts of the garden had been used to grow food and vegetables. However, in the 1990s, Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, sought out that the garden should be refurbished and redesigned. With the garden covering 42 acres and finally being brought back to its former splendour, it reopened in 2001, and the Poison Garden in 2005. Now, the location provides countless educational opportunities for visitors.
Just as the signs at the door say, “These plants can kill”, the Duchess finds great interest in sharing this knowledge with the world. While some of these plants also hold medicinal properties, she claims that “The line between kill and cure is what I’m interested in”, and kids, in particular, tend to take a liking to learn about such matters. Still, visitors can discover which plants to look out for, and even more can be educated on drugs and their effects. Since the northeast of England has the highest rates of drug deaths, the Poison Garden sought to embed a drug education program into its tours to prevent drug-related harm. And so, they have a permit to grow certain plants associated with drugs, such as opium poppies, cannabis, and coca plants.
Once again, visitors must be fully aware of the dangers of the plants around them as they begin their tour, receiving a safety briefing before walking through the iron gates. Nonetheless, there are countless faintings every year due to the mild inhalation of toxic fumes as visitors walk by. Some of the more dangerous specimens include wolfsbane, or monkshood, containing a neuro and cardiotoxin called aconitine. Even more so, ricin, the castor oil or castor bean plant, is known as “the world’s most poisonous plant’, as appointed by the Guinness Book of World Records. Aside from being lethal to humans and animals, such plants can also have detrimental effects on each other. The rhododendrons, for instance, can poison the soil when growing together, making it only so a select number of plants can grow in their presence.
Interestingly, many of the poisonous plants can be found rather easily growing around the UK, and are often just as easy to cultivate. Rhododendrons themselves are often used as home-garden bushes, despite their poisonous properties, and the laburnum tree is often cultivated near homes on account of their yellow flowers, however, their leaves are deadly upon ingestion, containing cytisine, which attacks the nervous system. Still, as stated by Dean Smith, a Guide at the Garden “Some plants don’t have to be eaten, touched, smelled, or turned into psychedelics to kill you”. The leaves of the cherry laurel (Prunus Laurocerasus) can kill just by being trimmed.
Now, what can be said about all of this? As shown, the Garden preserves and presents interesting information regarding the wide variety of behaviours exhibited by all sorts of plants. Although deadly in nature, many of the plants can also serve medicinal purposes when applied in precise doses or quantities, and despite the intimidating demeanour the Garden holds with skulls at its door, it serves as a welcoming and engaging learning opportunity to better comprehend plant life. Not only does it serve benefits in preserving and caring for the poisonous plants in a safe environment, but it provides an equally safe opportunity for audiences to interact with these plants, and act more responsibly to the plants around them.
Be it identifying poisonous plants in the wild, near your home, or even recognizing their effects as toxins, narcotics, and even medicine, there is room for learning in all aspects of the Garden, even its sections without toxic species. Seeing as the world we live in is replete with all kinds of remarkable plant life, taking the time to understand and see them in a better-informed light will allow for a more well-rounded perception of everything around us. Nature is intricately woven into human life and history, and so a visit to the Garden may be more insightful than expected. Hopefully, you’ll consider paying Alnwick Garden and its Poison division a visit if you ever find yourself near northeastern England. Just remember, while the plants won’t bite, they most certainly will kill!