Weird Wednesdays: The secret (poison) garden

Every single vine, leaf, blossom and stem in the Alnwick Poison Garden is (as you’d guess) highly toxic. Even a whiff, according to the tour guides, can spell doom, so visitors are warned to keep their distance. (Steve F/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Spring is here. The birds are singing, grass is growing, the snow is melting and everything is starting to wake up.

On that note, we can all celebrate the diversity of life around us, especially in the plant world. As the flowers bloom, admire their beauty – although if you visit the gardens of Alnwick, England, you should do it from a distance.

This English botanical garden, you see, is no mere walk in the park. Though it has all the things you’d want in a garden – topiaries, benches, guided tours – for a certain section, there’s one critical rule that all visitors must follow: no touching.

Every single vine, leaf, blossom and stem in the Alnwick Poison Garden is (as you’d guess) highly toxic. Even a whiff, according to the tour guides, can spell doom, so visitors are warned to keep their distance.

Those who step through its skull-and-crossbones gates (emblazoned with the somber warning, “These plants can kill”) will find it is filled with noxious wonders, including belladonna, henbane, opium poppies, South American nightshade and even cannabis. The garden, which is part of a 14-acre (nonpoisonous) botanical attraction, boasts about 100 toxic species in total, all of which are carefully cultivated and guarded by a 24/7 patrol.

This Tim Burton-worthy garden might sound like it was planted in gothic Victorian times; however, it’s actually a macabre modernity, first proposed in 1995 and built in 2005 by the Duchess of Northumberland Jane Percy.

When the duchess first came into her royal title in 1995, she was unsatisfied with sitting around wearing funny hats (as duchesses are often wont to do). Instead, she took it upon herself to revive the family gardens, which had more or less been left defunct after being converted to a Victory Garden during World War II.

While the majority of the site has your standard stuff (roses, hedges, ornamental ponds, etc.), the Poison Garden is something special. Previously a rose garden, the duchess turned it into the antithesis of a medieval medicinal greenery. Instead of planting healing herbs, Percy planted deadly species, which she uses to educate the general public on plant safety and history.

Ironically, many of the plants can actually be used for medicine. Modern-day painkillers are based on opium derivatives, belladonna can ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s and, as we all know, THC from cannabis can be used to ease stress and PTSD.

Today, the Alnwick Gardens remain one of England’s most popular tourist attractions (partly due to being used for certain scenes in the Harry Potter movies). The Poison Garden is just another flower in the bouquet. If you’re interested, book a tour. Look around, learn something and, whatever you do, don’t stop to smell the roses. And, of course, stay weird.


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.