We live on a green planet, full of all manner of plant life that seems to grow in every corner of our domain, no matter how extreme the environment may be. In honor of these plants, a great many botanical gardens have sprung up all around the world showcasing the wonders of this verdant green world of ours. Yet although most of these gardens are dedicated to showcasing the sheer beauty of our planet’s plants, there are others that take a more macabre route. These are the botanical gardens that celebrate nature’s deadly side, and the most well-known of these is a wing of a sprawling botanical gardens in England, which is filled with various unassuming and even stunningly beautiful plants that can easily kill you with so much as handling them. Welcome to the dark world of the botanical gardens dedicated to death. If you have a grim interest in death or the various ways that plants can reach out to destroy you, then strap on your seat belts and let’s go for a ride through the Alnwick Poison Garden.
Adjacent to Alnwick Castle in the town of Alnwick, Northumberland, England, which many might recognize as the location used for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series of film, behind thick wrought iron gates decked out with warning signs emblazoned with skull and crossbones, lies the The Alnwick Poison Garden. The garden actually is situated within the larger Alnwick Gardens, which was first laid down in 1750 by the 1st Duke of Northumberland, an avid plant collector who brought here seeds from all over the world. The gardens would be further expanded over the years, complete with an Italianate garden featuring a large conservatory erected in the 19th century by the 4th Duke, and would eventually become a complex of stunning botanical wonders and a grand showcase of various exotic plants, including acres of stunning flowers from all over the planet. During World War II, the garden would become a place for growing food, and would then fall into disrepair, closing in 1950.
Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, who had suddenly gained the title when her husband’s brother met an early death, enacted major efforts to renovate the gardens in 1997 at an estimated cost of around £42 million, with much of it designed by the renowned master landscape designer Capability Brown and landscape artist Jacques Wirtz. The whole thing had started as merely a hobby, with her husband merely wanting her to do something with the old abandoned gardens from before the war, but it had soon become an all encompassing passion for her. In the end, the gardens once again became one of England’s most beautiful attractions, with acres of colorful, blooming flowers, manicured topiaries, magnificent cascading fountains, a 6,000 sq. ft (560 m2) tree house complex including a cafe, one of the largest in the world, a lush pavilion and visitor center, complex landscaping, and numerous decorative gates that all sprawled over more than 14 acres. It was by all means a resounding success, a climbing from the ashes of despair for this magnificent garden, but the Duchess was not finished yet.
The Duchess had always been morbidly fascinated by the old apothecary’s gardens of yore, in particular the legendary botanical gardens in Padua where the Medicis concocted poisons with which to smite their enemies, so in February of 2005 she decided to add a wing to the botanical gardens dedicated to nothing but poisonous plants and plants with profound narcotic effects. She was enthralled with the ideas of lethal plants that could kill instead of heal, and the course for the poison garden was set. She set aside several neglected acres of the gardens and went about collecting more than 100 different varieties of poisonous plants to display there, some of them exceedingly rare, with varying degrees of lethality, always looking for plants that were not only highly dangerous, but also had a story to tell. The Duchess’s main purpose was education, especially for children, and she once said:
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. I wondered why so many gardens around the world focused on the healing power of plants rather than their ability to kill… I felt that most children I knew would be more interested in hearing how a plant killed, how long it would take you to die if you ate it and how gruesome and painful the death might be.
The Alnwick Poison Garden now is one of the only gardens of its kind. Here, visitors are encouraged to not touch, smell, or otherwise handle the plants in any way, as some of the plants are so potently toxic that they can cause horrific effects or even death just through touch or even by inhalation of the pollen, and the workers all routinely wear rubber gloves and other protective gear when going near them. Additionally, guides are wary of visitors venturing too close to the deadly plants on display, reign in curious children, and constantly warn people that they can easily kill. In some cases, the lethal plants are encircles by cages to prevent people from getting too close and the whole garden is ringed with walls and the entrance decked out in heavy gates that are always locked, are guarded 24 hours a day, and are adorned with liberal warnings of the deadly nature of the plants lying within. Even so, several visitors a year faint or are even hospitalized from touching or even smelling the plants. Some people just can’t resist, I suppose.
The plants on offer at the poison garden are diverse. Here, commonly known poisonous plants such as foxgloves, belladonna (deadly nightshade), poppies, Strychnos nux-vomica (strychnine), laburnam, Conium maculatum (hemlock), Ricinus communis (castor oil), full of the substance ricin which can be very horribly deadly, and varieties of aquilegia (Granny’s Bonnet), are cultivated alongside more exotic species that many have never seen.
Many of the plants, far from being mere killers, are surprisingly said to have various medicinal or beneficial effects as well. One of the most obvious is the castor bean, which originates in the Mediterranean and is widely grown as an ornamental tree in countries like Greece, and from which the ubiquitous castor oil is made. Castor oil has many purported medicinal effects, and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has even categorized it as generally recognized as safe and effective for over the counter use. Castor oil is used as a laxative, as a topical treatment for skin ulcers, to incite labor in women, and is a common ingredient for a wide range of drugs including the anti-fungal agent Miconazole, an immunosuppressant drug used to inhibit immune system response in organ transplants known as Sandimmune as well as yet another similar drug called Tacrolimus, an HIV protease inhibitor known as Nelfinavir mesylate, and Aci-Jel which is used to maintain acidity of the vagina. It is also used in many naturopathy treatments and also as an industrial lubricant. The thing about the castor bean is that it also contains high levels of ricin, a potently deadly toxin that makes a regular appearance in top 10 lists of the world’s most lethal poisons.
Another deadly plant with purported effects other than killing people is one of the Duchess’s favorites, Brugmansia, or the angel’s trumpet, a beautiful plant that is most often used as an ornamental plant. The medicinal uses for Brugmansia are vast. Traditionally it was used in many South American indigenous tribes as a topical ointment applied directly to the skin as an anti-inflammatory agent as well as to treat such varied woes as aches and pains, dermatitis, orchitis, arthritis, rheumatism, headaches, and infections among others. The plant is also used for internal ingestion to treat stomach and muscle ailments, as a decongestant, to induce vomiting, to expel worms and parasites, and as a sedative. In indigenous cultures it was a well known sedative, often used to treat unruly children (read: put them in a stuporous daze), or as a drug to sedate wives or slaves before they were buried alive with their dead master. Yikes. In modern medicine, Brugmansia is used as an active ingredient in some anesthetics. anti-asthmatics, and anticholinergics. The plant is also highly toxic, with every part of it, in particular the seeds and leaves, being saturated with Scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and several other tropane alkaloids, which in humans cause a range of nasty, undesirable symptoms such as paralysis, confusion, temporary insanity, profound and terrifying hallucinations both visual and auditory, nausea, migraine headaches, and of course death. The hallucinations caused by Brumansia are said to be extremely unpleasant, “bad trips” so to speak. The Swiss naturalist and explorer Johann von Tschudi described the effects of Brugmansia ingestion on one individual in Peru thus:
Soon after drinking the Tonga, the man fell into a dull brooding, he stared vacantly at the ground, his mouth was closed firmly, almost convulsively and his nostrils were flared. Cold sweat covered his forehead. He was deathly pale. The jugular veins on his throat were swollen as large as a finger and he was wheezing as his chest rose and sank slowly. His arms hung down stiffly by his body. Then his eyes misted over and filled with huge tears and his lips twitched convulsively for a brief moment. His carotids were visibly beating, his respiration increased and his extremities twitched and shuddered of their own accord. This condition would have lasted about a quarter of an hour, then all these actions increased in intensity. His eyes were now dry but had become bright red and rolled about wildly in their sockets and all his facial muscles were horribly distorted. A thick white foam leaked out between his half open lips. The pulses on his forehead and throat were beating too fast to be counted. His breathing was short, extraordinarily fast and did not seem to lift the chest, which was visibly fibrillating. A mass of sticky sweat covered his whole body which continued to be shaken by the most dreadful convulsions. His limbs were hideously contorted. He alternated between murmuring quietly and incomprehensibly and uttering loud, heart-rending shrieks, howling dully and moaning and groaning.
So a regular Saturday night for me, then. Brugmansia is also highly regarded as a powerful aphrodisiac, and in Victorian times was often added in very tiny amounts to tea to spice things up into the bedroom or to induce a drunken euphoria. The Duchess herself has explained the aphrodisiac properties of the plant thus:
It’s an amazing aphrodisiac before it kills you. Angel’s trumpet is an amazing way to die because it’s quite pain-free. A great killer is usually an incredible aphrodisiac.
So you can have the night of your life but you may very well die afterwards. Seems like a pretty shady trade off to me, but it was once very popular indeed. The interesting thing about this plant is how incredibly attractive it is with its stunning flowers, a fact that has made it an extremely popular ornamental plant and this beauty and popularity has not mixed well with the general unawareness of how ridiculously poisonous it is, unfortunately leading to quite a few hospitalizations and deaths over the years. In fact, the Alnwick Poison Garden has quite a few lethal beauties that almost seductively beckon to be touched, picked, or smelled, their potent toxicity hidden behind a pleasing veneer of elegant beauty. There are so many attractive flowering killers here that I am actually surprised more visitors do not die or are at least not profoundly sickened.
Take the oleander (Nerium oleander) for instance, which is plentiful here. It is covered with pretty, vibrant flowers, which has made it a common decorative plant in yards and gardens in warm climates everywhere, despite the fact that it contains deadly toxins known as glycosides. Being from California, I can tell you that this plant is in practically every yard and garden, and is growing along many streets as well. Unfortunately, there are many deaths in humans and pets each year, as only a few leaves can kill. Snake Root (Ageratina altissima) is another attractive flowering plant native to North America which is so potent that it will actually poison the milk and meat of cows that eat it, causing anyone ingesting the tainted products to suffer severe symptoms, violent illness, or of course death. Snake Root was once responsible for thousands of deaths in the 1700s and 1800s before it was discovered that the weed was the thing that was poisoning the cow products. Jequirity Beans (Abrus precatorius), native to the West Indies and also known as Rosary Peas or Jequirity Beans, can also be found here. These attractive beans are widely used to make handcrafted jewelry, yet are so deadly that it is said if the hard outer shell is pierced the sap that leaks out is terrifyingly fatal, being rich in the toxin abrin, which can be fatal in even very small doses and can have lethal effects when ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin, making them very dangerous to handle. Regardless of their lethality, the beans, which are somewhat reminiscent of ladybugs, are very popular for making jewelry and for decorative purposes and are shockingly widely available on the market despite a ban on them in several countries.
Another deadly beauty is poison hemlock, which grows as a weed all over the place in Europe. With its cute little flowers it is hard to imagine that such a lovely little plant could be so incredibly deadly, but deadly it is, so much so that it has been a well-known way to kill since the age of Socrates. It is also dangerous in that is very closely resembles parsley and its roots look like carrots, a fact that has undoubtedly led to many unfortunate fatal misunderstandings. In fact, its cousin, water hemlock, which grows in wetlands all over North America, looks unsettlingly similar to cilantro or carrots and is so incredibly poisonous that it can cause ill effects just by handling it.
Indeed a lot of the specimens that can be found in the garden look like something that may be good to eat. The Death Cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) is found all over Europe, Asia, and the United States, and looks nearly identical to the edible and widely eaten Paddy Straw Mushroom, which is especially popular in Asian cuisine. They are even found in the same type of environment, near hardwood trees like oak and pine, with which they form a symbiotic relationship. The highly toxic Death Cap is responsible for a great many accidental deaths around the world due to misidentification, but is still apparently delicious as those who have survived its poison have described the Death Cap as the best tasting mushroom they’ve ever had. Other poisonous plants at the gardens look utterly mundane, something you could easily just pass by without having the slightest inkling that it could kill you several times over.
Many of the plants on display at the Alnwick Poison Garden are not deadly, but rather powerful narcotics. When creating the gardens, the Duchess acquired special government permission to grow various narcotic plants such as opium poppies, cannabis, coca, and magic mushrooms. These plants are widely used at the gardens for drug education, which is one of the garden’s stated missions. In fact, the whole experience of visiting the Alnwick Poison Gardens can be an educational and eye opening one, with many surprises concerning beneficial, medicinal plants and ones we typically take for granted which can actually be quite deadly. The whole of the poison gardens is quite elaborately designed, with a bamboo labyrinth, a large treehouse, and various attractive fountains, and promises to be a thought provoking, enjoyable tour, if you survive I suppose. Just don’t stop to smell or pick any of the flowers. I’d say avoid anything with carrots, mushrooms, cilantro, or parsley in it at the visitor’s center too, just to be safe.