How hard do you have to work to get your kids psyched about going to a garden? Well, if you’re headed to The Alnwick Garden in England, the answer is not very. Yeah, it houses a rose garden, cherry orchard, and a manicured collection of rare plants. But the 48-acre park ain’t no boring botanical. It’s home a treehouse the size of an apartment complex and the on-grounds castle stood in for Hogwarts during the first 2 Harry Potter films. Also? It’s home to the largest collection of deadly plants in the world.
The gruesome greenery is the brainchild of Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland and current owner of The Alnwick Garden. When her brother-in-law died unexpectedly in 1995, she inherited the grounds, the title, and the castle. The gardens were originally laid out in 1750 by legendary (and incredibly named) landscape architect Capability Brown. But they fell into disrepair after World War II and sat fallow for decades until Percy revived them in 1997. She restored the landscape to its original majesty and added a modern glass pavilion. But something was missing. Like plants that can kill a man.
Inspired by her visits to the Medici Villa in Tuscany, which includes a collection of plants the family used to poison their enemies, Percy decided to devote a section of the grounds to deadly greens. The Poison Garden (as it’s aptly named), sits behind an iron gate with an oh-so-subtle sign that states, “THESE PLANTS CAN KILL.” And it’s not all Venus Flytraps screaming, “feed me, Seymour!”
The garden houses more than “100 species of varying deadliness.” There’s Brugsmania, a South American shrub with huge orange flowers. Eating one will cause insanity, followed quickly by death. Then there’s also Foxglove, which causes diarrhea and jaundice (which is yellow eyes, brown pants). Well-known poisons from literature like hemlock and strychnine also share the spotlight with some real killers, such as Ricinus communis. Although its seeds are the source of harmless castor oil, just 4 of them are enough to kill a person.
But it’s not all fun and mortality. In the back corner of the plot is a small section of plants that are a bit safer for (adult) consumption. Meant to help educate visitors about drugs, the coca, cannabis, and opium poppies there are grown with special permits from the British government. Alnwick is also one of the few institutions outside the Arabian Peninsula to grow Khat, a powerful stimulant.
Is placing all these deadly plants near one another, questionable? Yeah, a bit. Will kids find it awesome? You know it. And that’s exactly what Percy wants to achieve. Speaking to Smithsonian Magazine, she said:
“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.”
She has a point. When was the last time your family cared to stop and read a placard at a garden? Tours fill up fast and kids are captivated. Of course, eating, touching, and even smelling anything in the garden strictly prohibited. It may seem overly cautious, but it’s not uncommon for a visitor to faint after inhaling fumes from a pleasant-smelling plant.
Because your kids will likely get bored when they realize they can’t do any of the above, there are other attractions too. Some must-visits include a massive treehouse made of Scandinavian wood and English pine, where you and the kids can scramble across wobbly rope bridges and elevated walkways, and a fairytale-themed garden that features storybook-character quests for children.
For those of you looking for to spend some personal time with lethal shrubbery, the garden is open year-round and wheelchair accessible. Ticket prices vary, as do the daily events. The danger, however, does not.