Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, does not need ferocious dogs or bodyguards to ward off unwanted guests and intruders. Her security is guaranteed by poisonous plants that surround her home – the Alnwick Castle in the northeastern English county, Northumberland.
The 1000 year old stone castle is familiar to the adorers of “Harry Potter” films. The end part of “Downtown Abbey” for the Season 5 was filmed there, as well as the scene in which Harry plays the Quidditch game and learns how to fly a broom in the Outer Bailey of the castle.
How the garden came to be
When the Duke of Northumberland overdosed himself with amphetamine and died in 1995, his younger brother Ralph inherited the title, becoming the 12th duke and taking into possession the Alnwick Castle. He asked his wife, the new duchess, to renovate the old gardens which had become ruined and devastated.
The duchess wished to expand the concept of majestic but usual splendor of royal décor. She initially redesigned and beautified the land with the help of a skillful and internationally renowned architect Jacques Wirtz. You can definitely enjoy the beautifully shaped shrubs, tunnels of vines, a bamboo labyrinth, magnificent trees and sculptures, and admire the Grand Cascade water fountain.
All of these features are spread throughout the 14 acres of land, but the duchess also wanted the beautiful garden landscape to include something extraordinary, something uniquely breathtaking…and sinister.
A visit to the ancient Medici poison garden in Padua, Italy, gave her the needed inspiration. The duchess was also inspired by the archeological site in Scotland, where the biggest hospital from the Middle Ages was located. There she found out which plants with opiate properties were used to anesthetize patients.
She thought that her own garden of poisonous plants would be a huge attraction for adult and children alike and decided to make a selection of 100 lethal varieties.
The garden was officially opened in 2005.
The plants in the poison garden and the stories behind them
The first thing that greets a visitor before entering the enchanted garden is a black iron gate with the familiar warning sign, the skull and crossbones, with a displayed sign “These Plants Can Kill”. Then one must go through a long leafy tunnel to step into the garden.
Trained guides carefully lead the guests along the path, frequently warning them not to touch or smell any of the plants. Some of the most lethal species are placed behind bars to ensure that no one can touch them.
Some of the visitors have fallen victims to the intoxicating vapors of the plants, having fainted in the middle of their walk. “People think we’re being overdramatic when we talk about [not smelling the plants], but I’ve seen the health and safety reports,” the duchess says. “What’s extraordinary about the plants is that it’s the most common ones that people don’t know are killers,” she adds.
It is an interesting fact that commonly used laurel leaves are among plants that emit intoxicating fumes, containing cyanide and benzaldehyde when cut. They cause people to lose consciousness when exposed to their vapor for longer periods of time.
You can find hemlock, the infamous poison which was used to kill the famous Greek philosopher Socrates.
The innocently looking daffodils also hide a sinister side. Their bulbs are highly toxic. The captured Roman soldiers ingested them to commit suicide.
Periwinkles, also known as the “sorcerers’ violet”, were added to love potions, but they also cause a dangerous fall in blood pressure. They were consumed by hangmen when they were about to murder someone to ignite violence and aggression.
The sweet, baby pink foxgloves cause hallucinations and vomiting, even madness.
The gorgeous Brugmansia suaveolens, or the Angel’s Trumpet, also resides within the Poison Garden. It has powerful aphrodisiac and hallucinogenic properties that melancholic Victorian ladies took advantage of. They used to add some of its pollen in their afternoon tea and drift away into an imaginary world. Too much of the substance had lethal consequences, though.
Did you know that Ricinus communis, a plain looking plant that is the source of the much used castor oil also produces deadly poison ricin? You will also find it displayed in the Poison Garden.
The beautiful Laburnum tree, with bright yellow flowers hanging down heavily from the branches like a girl’s golden locks, is completely poisonous. All parts of the tree cause vomiting, coma, and frothing at the mouth when ingested.
Acconitum napellus, commonly known as monkshood, or wolfbane, is a plant with lovely deep purple flowers shaped like a hood. The lovely appearance is but a disguise for a lethal poison.
The duchess also wished to educate children on drugs, so Cannabis sativa, psilocybin mushrooms and the coca plant are also grown there. Cannabis plant causes significant damage in the young persons’ brains when consumed. “It’s a way of educating children without having them realize they’re being educated,” she says.
If visitors become a little paranoid after hearing all the scary stories about the plants’ properties, they can walk across the rope bridges and try to relax in a Tree house bar that is located high in the lime trees. Famous cocktails, which are named after the duchess, are served there: “Dirty Jane”, “Deadly Jane”, and “Desirable Jane”, are amongst the beverages served there.
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