Positioning itself as the world’s most extraordinary contemporary garden, England’s Alnwick Garden harbours a dangerous attraction. Founded in 1750 by the first Duke of Northumberland, the 14-acre complex is now being run by Jane Percy, the current Duchess of Northumberland, who's taken it upon herself to make it a more engaging and educational place for kids.
When the duchess inherited the garden in 1995, she set about revitalising it. The obvious idea was planting rows and rows of fragrant and stunning roses, but that wasn’t going to inspire a young crowd to spend a day on the grounds. With the help of Belgian landscape gardener, Jacques Wirtz, who’d just been working on the gardens at the residence of the French president, the duchess made sure that the Alnwick Garden would become entirely unique.
"If you’re building something, especially a visitor attraction, it needs to be something really unique," she told Natasha Geiling at Smithsonian Magazine. "One of the things I hate in this day and age is the standardisation of everything. I thought, 'Let’s try and do something really different.’"
Rather than building an apothecary garden, filled with hundreds of plants with the capacity to heal a multitude of human ailments, the duchess wanted to create a garden filled with danger, just like the famous Medici poison garden in Italy.
"I thought, 'This is a way to interest children,'" she told Geiling. "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.”
The Poison Garden of Alnwick now houses 100 plant varieties that do can horrible things to a person, even if they so much as smell the air surrounding them. The highly toxic laurel hedges, for example, have claimed several lives outside Alnwick, because they sometimes grow in private gardens of British locals. The duchess says that these locals cut the laurel hedges from their own gardens, load them up in their cars to drive them to the dump, but are put to sleep by the poisonous fumes on the way, causing them to crash.
As a precaution, visitors to the Poison Garden are warned not to smell, touch or taste anything. But that doesn’t stop accidents from happening occasionally, as Geiling reports:
This past summer, seven people reportedly fainted from inhaling toxic fumes while walking through the garden. '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.”
The duchess also grows several drugs in her Poison Garden, including cannabis and cocaine, as a way to educate children about the effects of these plants on the human body. She says it's a more effective and engaging way of educating kids about drugs than talking at them about it in the classroom.
She told Smithsonian Magazine that one of her favourite additions to the garden is the innocently named angel's trumpet, or Brugmansia, native to South America. In small amounts it can induce a psychedelic trip like LSD, but can easily kill. But not before making you feel amazing first. "It's an amazing aphrodisiac before it kills you," she says. "[Angel's trumpet] is an amazing way to die because it's quite pain-free. A great killer is usually an incredible aphrodisiac."
By the way, Australians? Don't think you're safe from the toxic plant fumes, because just as we're home to all kinds of animals that can kill us, we also harbour a plant that happens to be one of the deadliest and most painful varieties in the entire world: