In the sprawling gardens of England’s Alnwick Castle, the seat of the Duke of Northumberland and the filming location of the first two films in the Harry Potter franchise, one can see a variety of carefully cultivated and beautiful plants of every shape and size, but it is the famed Poison Garden that has drawn the most attention since it was opened to the public in 2005.
It all began when Jane Percy became the Duchess of Northumberland when her husband was elevated to the seat of Duke after his brother’s death. After taking up residence in the castle, he gave over the gardens–which then equated to little more than a sprawling Christmas tree farm–to her.
“I think he thought, ‘That will keep her quiet, she’ll just plant a few roses and that’ll be it,'” the duchess told the Smithsonian in an interview back in 2014.
Instead she hired famed landscape architect Jacques Wirtz, and together they meticulously planned an entirely new purpose and structure for the gardens including rare species of plants from around the world.
It was at this time that the Duchess had the idea of creating an “apothecary garden” to display medicinal plants. Later, however, she visited the Medici poison garden in Italy and returned with an entirely new idea.
Instead of displaying plants that would heal, they would cultivate those that could kill.
And so, she began collecting the 100 species that are present in the garden today. She wanted plants that were not only poisonous but would also tell a good story.
So, for instance, she brought in Brugmansia, also called angel’s trumpets, a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family from South America. Every part of this plant form its pollen to its stems is poisonous. However, it also acts as a harsh, unforgiving psychedelic and sometimes a euphoric aphrodisiac depending on how it is used.
It can also cause tachycardia, dry mouth, migraines, delusions, and death.
Because of its euphoric qualities, however, it is considered a relatively pain-free death but those who do survive have been quite unlucky. For some, you see, those trance-like states it offers border on the psychotic, inducing hallucinations that are far too real for the one who has ingested it. In one such case, a young man who had ingested a tea made from the plant woke to find he had amputated his own penis and his tongue in the middle of his delusions.
The garden also features the Strychnos nux-vomica, the tree that is the source of strychnine.
You don’t have to eat strychnine for it to kill. It can be used in powdered form wherein someone could breathe in the deadly plant. Its toxins can also be absorbed through the skin. Today strychnine is most commonly used in pesticides, and specifically for rats.
Visitors will also find hemlock, the poison that famously figured into the death of Socrates, belladonna aka deadly nightshade, and foxglove which was once used to treat all manner of ailments but has been largely abandoned due to its sometimes lethal side effects.
Ever heard of Ricinus communis? It is used to create castor oil, which is excellent for cleansing the bowels and digestive system, but is also the source of ricin, a poison so potent that a dose the size of a few small grains of salt can kill an adult human.
Along with all these deadly plants, the Poison Garden also uses its platform for drug education displaying cannabis, coca plants, and the opium poppy behind its black gates.
Visitors are warned not to touch, taste, or smell the plants inside the Poison Garden and yet, every year, at least a few fainting spells occur inside its walls.
Alnwick Gardens bring in around 600,000 visitors each year, and no few of them are there specifically to visit their garden of deadly delights.
To learn more about the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle, you can visit their official website.