With Halloween right around the corner, I thought it would be fun to talk about one of the deadliest gardens in the world. From stories I’ve heard, The Alnwick Garden is one of north England’s most beautiful attractions, where acres of colorful plants invite visitors to wander through rows of fragrant roses, manicured topiaries, and cascading fountains. It also has one of the most unusual features I’ve heard of… a Poison Garden! Kept behind black iron gates, visitors are explicitly told NOT to stop and smell the flowers! It is home to some 100 deadly plants, some of which you may have in your own yard.
It was created by Jane Percy, who became the Duchess of Northumberland in 1995. Her brother died unexpectedly, leaving her the title and Alnwick Castle. The castle just happens to be the setting for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. The full extent of the gardens covers about 14 acres. When Percy and her family moved there however, the grounds were mostly disused commercial forestry land that was littered with rows of Christmas trees. She had decided to build a garden with the intention of it becoming a tourist attraction but knew she would need something unique.
During this planning stage, she went to Italy where she visited the infamous Medici poison garden and fell in love with the idea. She set about collecting her plants with two stipulations – the only way a plant can take root in this garden is if it is lethal to humans, and it must tell a good story. What is really interesting is that you might be surprised at how many of these plants can be found in the average landscape, even your own yard!
The Duchess and her team have combined the common plants with all sorts of exotic plants from around the world, too. You can find a South American Brugmansia mixed in between some laurel hedges. Yes, laurel bushes can be highly toxic. The Duchess says she’s heard stories from several visitors over the years about people who have packed freshly pruned laurel leaves into their cars to haul them off to the dump, only to end up passing out from the plants toxic fumes. Percy says that is one of the things that fascinates her the most, that it’s some of the most common garden plants that can kill you, and most people have no idea!
Because her plants are so dangerous, visitors to the Poison Garden are not allowed to smell or touch them. The front gates to the garden actually read “These Plants Can Kill.” Many of the plants required she get special government permission to grow them in the first place. Some of the most dangerous plants are actually in “cages” to prevent anyone from accidentally wandering too close. Tourists have indeed fallen ill and fainted in the garden just from being downwind from the wrong plant. Groundskeepers take special precautions, always wearing gloves and around some, even breathing masks! Among the deadly flora at Alnwick are foxgloves, atropa belladonna — also known as the deadly nightshade — and hemlock, the plant that killed the philosopher Socrates. Then there are more common killers, like daffodils – the bulbs are supposedly highly toxic. Take a video tour of the Poison Garden HERE. Below are a few of the most deadly plants here in our own backyard. (Source: TreeHugger, USDA Forest Services)
Water Hemlock is considered to be the most deadly plant growing in North America. It is common in moist areas in meadows, marshes, ponds and even roadsides. It can easily be mistaken for a favorite among florists, Queen Anne’s lace, so it’s good to get to know this plant well so you can spot it even among look-alikes. Why so dangerous? Cucutoxin contained in the plant causes vomiting and violent convulsions, and is found in the tubers, stems and leaves. Even the green seed heads are poisonous. It is deadly to humans as well as to livestock. It only takes a walnut-sized piece of the tuber to kill a 1,200-pound animal! Mistaking the plant for a similar-looking edible species is sometimes the cause of poisoning.
Castor oil plant contains what is called the castor bean. Castor beans contain ricin, one of the most toxic known substances. Chewing even a single castor bean will bring on troubling symptoms that will send you to the hospital, and ingestion of four or more seeds can lead to fatal gastroenteritis.
Belladonna plants can be extremely lethal. The berries of belladonna look scrumptious, but avoid the temptation to taste test. This is a very toxic plant that is native to Europe and naturalized in North America. Like many poisonous plants, belladonna can be helpful when its properties are extracted and used in the right ways at the right dosages. Today, it is used for such illnesses as irritable bowl syndrome, stomach ulcers and even motion sickness. It is also used by optometrists to dilate pupils. The is a use with a long history. “During the Italian Renaissance, which lasted from the 14th to 16th century, fashionable women drank the juice of belladonna berries to dilate their pupils,” writes Medical News Today. “Belladonna owes its name to this practice, as it means ‘beautiful woman’ in Italian.” This was a risky use. If mishandled, the results are dire. A person who ingests the plant will experience symptoms including “rapid heart beat, dilated pupils, delirium, vomiting, hallucinations, and death due to respiratory failure,” according to the USDA Forest Service. Even handling the plant is risky as the toxins can be absorbed through the skin.
Monkshood is a beautiful addition to any garden, with those long stalks of richly colored and ornately shaped flowers. The genus Aconitum has 250 species (most of which are highly poisonous). Aconitum napellus is the most commonly grown ornamental variety, and Aconitum columbianum is a species found throughout the western half of the United States. It also goes by Wolfsbane, Wolf’s Bane, Devil’s Helmet Flower and even Queen of Poisons. Not recognizing the plant and being careless while handling it can be enough to send you to the hospital. When the sap comes in contact with any mucus membrane it can lead to cardiac and respiratory failure. Symptoms come on immediately, and if you were to ingest enough of the plant, death may occur as quickly as two to six hours later. In 2014, a 33-year-old gardener died of multiple organ failure after brushing up against this deadly plant while working at an estate in Britain. With so many species of plant, including those listed here, we walk a delicate line between appreciating a plant for beauty and medicinal use, and courting death by handling it. Is the trade-off worth growing something such as this dangerous flower in your own garden? It’s certainly a risky decision.