An ominous warning greets visitors as they approach the gates of The Alnwick Garden. Even its gardeners require head to toe protection while tending to its plants. Visitors can observe the plants all they want, but are strongly advised not to touch. That’s because The Alnwick Garden is the deadliest in the world.
The clue is on the imposing, black iron gates that lead visitors into the garden. Its uprights are intertwined with decorative vines and leaves. But it bears a message flanking a skull and crossbones. A stark warning to anyone who is brave enough to enter Alnwick, the world’s deadliest garden.
The garden is kept in good order to receive visitors. However, its groundsman looks as though he is more prepared for nuclear disaster than for merely pruning plants and plucking weeds. His job is a challenging one, and he can tell you what will happen if you get too close to the vegetation.
However, don’t think that this deadly haven is littered with plants from far-flung corners of the Earth. Indeed, its vegetation is not particularly exotic, rare or hard to find. This garden’s poisonous shrubbery is actually pretty common. In fact, some could well be thriving in your own back yard.
The Alnwick Garden, then, is not your typical oasis away from the commotion of everyday life. Indeed, this sanctuary comes with an extreme health warning. “THESE PLANTS CAN KILL,” reads the bold notice on the entry gate. The refuge is named the Poison Garden, and you must enter at your own risk.
The Poison Garden is situated in the grounds of Alnwick – pronounced an-ick – Castle, which is located in the northeast of England. Its name may be an unfamiliar one to many, but the magnificent structure itself is perhaps more recognizable. Indeed, the building is a star of screens both big and small.
Alnwick Castle featured as a location in numerous movies and TV shows. Perhaps most famously it appeared as Hogwarts in early Harry Potter films The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber Of Secrets. Period drama fans might recognize it as Downton Abbey’s Brancaster Castle. Or perhaps action movie fans spotted it in Transformers: The Last Knight.
Parts of Alnwick Castle date back as far as the 11th century. Considerable alterations and extensions were applied to the structure over time, yet today it serves, in part, as the family home of the 12th Duke Of Northumberland. Indeed, it’s second to only Windsor Castle, home to the Queen, as England’s largest residential castle.
However, Alnwick Castle stands as more than an active residence and movie set. The castle also serves as a tourist attraction and is open to the public every day from March through to October. Visitors can dine in its cafés and restaurants or marvel at the State Rooms’ luxurious Italian Renaissance-inspired décor.
Those brave enough can stand face-to-face with a fearsome creature at the Dragon Quest. Budding wizards can learn to fly on broomsticks, while 15th-century jousting contests take place in the castle’s grounds. With museums and exhibitions to be enjoyed elsewhere on site, another big attraction is Alnwick Castle’s spectacular gardens.
England’s greatest ever landscaper, Capability Brown, designed the earliest incarnation of Alnwick Castle’s garden in 1750, under the instruction of the first duke of Northumberland. The 42-acre plot flourished under the third duke, an avid plant collector who introduced many plants and fruits to the gardens from all over the world.
Northumberland’s fourth duke continued The Alnwick Garden’s development throughout the mid-19th century, adding an Italian style and a sizeable conservatory. However, the grounds were given to grow crops during the Second World War to ease strain on the country’s food supply following two wars. Then, from 1950, the land fell into a period of neglect.
However, Jane Percy took responsibility for the gardens after she unexpectedly inherited the title of duchess of Northumberland in 1995. She was born Isobel Jane Richard in Edinburgh in 1958, and at age 16, she met Lord Ralph Percy at a birthday party for his cousin. Their meeting inspired her to relocate to Oxford.
Lord Percy was studying at the University of Oxford. Richard moved there to be with him, and studied to become a secretary. The couple married in July 1979, despite their parents insisting they were too young. With her marriage to a lord, Richard earned the title of Lady Ralph Percy.
Over the next 11 years, the couple had four children; Lady Katie, Earl George, Lady Melissa and Lord Max. For more than a decade the family home was a farmhouse in Northumberland. However, their lives changed in 1995 when Percy’s brother-in-law, Henry, the 11th duke of Northumberland, suddenly passed away.
Percy’s husband was heir to his older brother’s dukedom because Henry never married or had children. The family then relocated to Alnwick Castle to start their new life. However, Percy, now the duchess of Northumberland, was unhappy in her noble role. But, at the suggestion of her husband, she found a new focus in redeveloping the castle grounds.
Percy embraced the challenge, perhaps inspired by her mom, Angela, Lady Buchanan-Hepburn’s work on Kailzie Gardens in the Scottish Borders. Percy enlisted the help of landscape design team Jacques and Peter Wirtz to renovate the grounds in an ambitious project that is believed to have cost more than $50 million.
“I realized I could do something really great if I had the right team,” Percy told Smithsonian magazine in September 2014. But as well as the right team she needed a killer idea. The duchess understood that something unique was called for to set her garden apart from hundreds of others throughout England.
“If you’re building something, especially a visitor attraction, it needs to be something really unique,” Percy explained. “One of the things I hate in this day and age is the standardization of everything. I thought, ‘Let’s try and do something really different.’” Indeed, it was then that her killer idea really flourished.
The Alnwick Garden was designed around a central cascading fountain, while an elaborate treehouse complex with its own café was added later. The gardens include a visitor center and pavilion, water features, manicured lawns, an ornamental rose garden, a cherry orchard and bamboo labyrinth. However, tucked away behind imposing iron gates lies something more ominous.
By her own admission, Percy is a duchess who defies stiff, formal traditions. Indeed, she practices martial arts and even hosts caged boxing events in Alnwick Castle’s grounds. However, it’s not UFC fights that take place behind the forbidding gates. What looms beyond the sinister warning signs is something far more deadly.
Percy was inspired by the 474-year-old poison gardens of Orto Botanico di Padova, in Padua, northern Italy. The academic botanical garden is the oldest of its type that remains where it was first initiated. Moreover, it’s the place where the Medicis, Florence’s then-ruling dynasty, would plot the demise of their royal rivals among the garden’s poisonous plants.
The duchess’ own version, the Poison Garden, is located behind heavy iron gates bearing the warning “these plants can kill.” Indeed, visitors enter at their own risk and may do so only under supervision from a dedicated guide. Once inside, guests are strongly advised not to touch or sniff any of the greenery.
Indeed, even head gardener Trevor Jones must wear protective clothing while carrying out his duties. And more than mere heavy duty gloves and rubber boots, Jones instead wears a full bodysuit and face shield as if he’s ready to tackle a nuclear disaster. That’s because all plants in the Poison Garden have the ability to kill.
“I thought, ‘This is a way to interest children,’” Percy explained to Smithsonian. “Children don’t care that aspirin comes from the 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 like before you die.”
It would be easy to picture brave botanists scything their way through the depths of tropical jungles to locate these deadly plants. However, the poisonous shrubbery can be sourced closer to home than most might realize. In fact, many of them are so common that they are often found in many back yards.
Fortunately, Jones is regularly on hand to police visitors with a helpful reminder to look but don’t touch. He’s also a fountain of knowledge on how each plant might at the very least cause a prolonged rash, if not kill. Which is just as well, because most of the Poison Garden’s greenery looks seemingly innocuous.
Nevertheless, each plant is marked in Latin, with every placard bearing a menacing skull and crossbones. Most names won’t be familiar. Brugmansia, for example, is native to the South American tropics. However, its pretty, pendulous flowers – which give it the common name angel’s trumpet – can cause paralysis if you’re lucky, and death if you’re not.
Giant hogweed can grow as tall as eight feet, so it might look imposing at its fullest. Moreover, its foliage contains phototoxic properties, so it’s not advised to grapple with this bad boy. Skin will singe after contact with the plant, and blistering may occur for as long as seven years.
Ruta graveolens has the same effect as giant hogweed. As Jones told Tom Scott on YouTube in May 2017, “We had a senior gardener who saw a weed growing out of this plant. Without putting her gloves on, she took the weed out. Within an hour, blisters formed on her hand and she ended up with third-degree burns.”
However, other gardeners didn’t get off so lightly. When a gardener in Surrey in the southeast of England encountered Aconitum napellus, or monkshood, he passed away days later. It’s believed the likely cause of death was exposure to toxins from the plant, which is not only found in the Poison Garden, but also widely around England.
However, Americans shouldn’t believe they’re safe from common or garden plants. As Joanne Silberner explained in an article on NPR in April 2017, “A powerful poison can be made from Helleborus species – very much like the ones growing in my garden in Seattle.” Though lower doses are medicinal, too much can be fatal.
A common plant featured in the Poison Garden is laurel. During the reign of Queen Victoria, butterfly collectors would capture butterflies and place them in mason jars along with laurel leaves and screw the lids tight. The vapor from the laurel would send the butterfly to sleep. Permanently. This was due to its cyanide content.
Moreover, laurel’s toxic emissions are effective on humans. As Percy told Smithsonian, “What’s extraordinary about the plants is that it’s the most common ones that people don’t know are killers.” Indeed, the duchess tells of green-fingered visitors who have dozed behind the wheel while driving to dispose of laurel pruned from their own back yards.
Meanwhile, Atropa belladonna – Italian for beautiful lady – might sound sensual and alluring. Not so much by its common name, deadly nightshade. It’s a highly poisonous plant whose juicy black fruit might at first appear enticing. However, ingesting ten of them can kill an adult, while a child would require only two or three berries.
Aconitum is a particularly ruthless killer, albeit relatively common in some places. Spurned lover Lakhvir Singh was labeled “The Curry Killer” when she laced her ex-boyfriend’s meal with Aconitum after he called time on their 16-year relationship to be with a younger woman in 2008. Singh was sentenced to life in prison for his murder.
However, the deadliest plant in the Poison Garden is Ricinus communis. As head gardener Jones explains, “This is a very common plant, [which] produces a bean. That bean [contains] a toxin, and from that [toxin] we can extract ricin, the deadliest poison known to man.” Indeed, it takes only a minuscule amount of ricin to kill an adult.
Perhaps the most famous use of ricin occurred in 1978. Bulgarian writer and journalist Georgi Markov died after a ricin pellet was shot into his leg through the tip of an umbrella. The culprits are thought to have been associated with the Bulgarian secret police, who targeted Markov due to his criticisms of Bulgaria’s communist regime.
Many of the Poison Garden’s plants require refinement to reach their lethal form. Indeed, when used in moderation, most also contain remedial qualities. In fact, when Jones was treated for leukemia some years ago, his medication included drugs procured from Madagascar periwinkle, which is highly toxic if imbibed.
There are around 100 potentially deadly plants in the Poison Garden. Alnwick Castle also has permission to grow various drugs, including cocaine and cannabis, to educate visitors on the effects of narcotics. The garden is a highly unconventional form of learning. As Percy explained to Smithsonian, “It’s a way of educating children without having them realize they’re being educated.”