England's Poison Garden: Don't Stop To Smell These Flowers


A guide at the Poison Garden gate at Alnwick Garden. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If you've ever gotten on the wrong side of poison ivy, you know that some plants can fight back. For millennia, humans have learned to stay away from these plants, but they still hold some attraction. In fact, in England, there's a special garden in which every plant can harm you.

The Poison Gardener

Jane Perry didn't plan to become a duchess, but after her brother-in-law died unexpectedly in 1995, the title of Duke of Northumberland passed to her husband. In addition to fancy titles, the couple inherited Alnwick Castle, which stood in for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter movies and has been the traditional seat of the Duke of Northumberland for generations. Perry's husband tasked her with getting its gardens back in shape, so she worked with renowned landscape architect Jacques Wirtz to turn the 14 acres surrounding the castle into gorgeous, manicured grounds with fragrant roses, charming paths, topiaries, and statues. She also decided to create a garden filled with lethal and deadly plants.

Alnwick Castle. (Phil Thomas/Wikimedia Commons)

Alnwick Poison Garden

The Alnwick Poison Garden contains more than 100 varieties of poisonous plants. Some are exotic species from South America and Asia, but some are as common as laurel, which Perry says many people don't realize is toxic. Also included are nightshade, angel's trumpet, belladonna, laburnum tree, Christmas rose, wolf's bane, and castor oil plants, the latter from which the toxin ricin is derived. The gardeners at Alnwick Poison Garden joke that they grow "the ABCs" (or all classes) of drugs, including opium poppies and cannabis that must be carefully documented for legal reasons.

The cascade at the center of Alnwick Garden. (TSP/Wikimedia Commons)

Teaching Moments

Initially, Perry had wanted to add a collection of medicinal plants, but at Italy's famed Medici poison garden, she was educated on plants that can both cure you and kill you, and she sees her poison garden as a similar educational opportunity. For safety reasons, the garden has a fence around it, secured by an iron gate with a prominent sign warning visitors not to touch or smell the plants inside, as the castle welcomes more than 600,000 visitors annually.