Nature offers endless beauty in the form of plants, flowers, trees, and wildlife. When we see photographs of lush landscapes, we yearn to be transfixed within them, to experience their glory with all our senses. Sight only offers an invitation to travel to the place we see; we yearn to breathe the fresh air we imagine is seeping from the foliage, we want to feel the texture of the greenery, smell the flowers blooming, taste the flourishing herbs nature is offering. We rarely see images of topiary landscapes and think of danger, but when it comes to north England’s Alnwick Gardens, we probably should.
Hidden within the grounds of this tourist attraction, housed behind iron gates clad with warning signs, lies Alnwick Garden’s most morbid curiosity: a growing collection of 100 killer plants. Contrary to old adage, the Poison Garden specifically warns patrons to not stop and smell the flowers. As you walk through the gates, you are repeatedly told to avoid touching, tasting, or even smelling any of the infamous things growing inside. Some of the plants, such as the laurel hedge, can emit toxic fumes that are known to cause fainting in those who dare take a whiff. The garden wasn’t always so popular and exotic, though; prior to Jane Percy becoming the Duchess of Northumberland in 1995, it was just a massive spread of forestry lined with Christmas trees.
Following the unexpected death of her husband’s brother, Percy became duchess and moved to the Alnwick Castle with her husband, now Duke of Northumberland. She was given the opportunity to transform the land into a garden by way of a suggestion from her husband, which she half-jokingly claims was an underestimation by him. Apparently he assumed she would plant some roses and call it a day, but this little duchess had much bigger plans for her new garden. She set out to make something that would draw in crowds, she wanted something unique that would attract people, particularly children who typically had little interest in plants. She tripped to Italy and found inspiration in the Medici poison garden. According to Percy, this was a realm of plants that would really make kids want to learn. “Children don’t care that aspirin comes from a 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,” says Percy.
After hiring a team of architects and landscapers, Percy’s 14 acre garden attraction was realized. Just as she anticipated, the Poison Garden offered the perfect unusual charm to bait guests into the Alnwick Gardens. Today, it is one of north England’s most popular tourist attraction, bringing in over 600,000 visitors each year. The duchess uses her garden to educate children about the importance and dangers of plants, including a variety of drugs grown in the garden. The garden guides are able to offer drug-education by pointing out the cannabis or coca plant, and Percy says this form of teaching is a valuable learning tool because it’s almost disguised, or as she puts it, “It’s a way of educating children without having them realize they’re being educated.”