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VISITORS ARE ENCOURAGED TO TOUCH, smell and even nibble a berry or two as they stroll through Alnwick Castle’s 26 acres of shrubs, trees and flowers—until they reach the Poison Garden. Here some of the world’s most venomous and hallucinogenic plants are grown, some so potentially nasty that they are incarcerated in caged beds.
Opened in February 2005, the Poison Garden is but the latest head twirler in a whirlwind of controversy over the Duchess of Northumberland’s garden. England’s protective garden groupies experienced their first sharp intake of breath over its proposed location. If a new garden was to be constructed, they maintained, it should be in the south, where Britain’s most stately horticultural showcases are located, and not in the country’s far north. Raising eyebrows further, the duchess skipped over English soil in her search for designers and landscape architects and headed for Europe, even America. “From the beginning, I put my head above the parapet and was shot at,” laughed the vivacious duchess.
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After all, right at hand she had what she calls “the perfect derelict site” to work with, the almost obliterated-by-time Alnwick Castle garden laid down in 1750 by the first Duke of Northumberland, who employed Capability Brown, the most celebrated gardener of the day, to landscape the castle’s parkland.
One wonders what the 12th Duke of Northumberland thought his wife had in mind in 1996 (the same year he unexpectedly inherited the dukedom) when he gave her the nod to bring new life to the garden along with £5 million in start-up money. Most likely he envisioned lawns edged in boxwood, a rose garden, a pond or two and perhaps a gazebo, not a computer-operated, 30-terrace water feature tumbling 7,260 gallons a minute with jets that spurt willy-nilly at passersby on purpose, or a labyrinth of bamboo, or a fleet of miniature John Deere tractors for kids to trundle about on—or a poison garden. “I wanted to create a garden that was beautiful yet pleasurable, educational yet not stuffy,” the duchess said. “A place where families would want to come and spend the day.” Forty-two million pounds later, the lovely, down-to-earth, unpredictable Duchess of Northumberland has done just that.
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Even under construction, Alnwick Castle’s garden was a hit. When Prince Charles formally presided over its opening in 2002, it was but one-third complete yet it was attracting more than 550,000 visitors a year.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that a bevy of films have been shot at Alnwick Castle (the second largest inhabited castle in Britain next to Windsor Castle), including the on-site filming of Harry Potter’s school of wizardry, Hogwarts. With that, the Poison Garden seems a natural extension—Harry and his friends trekking off to the Poison Garden for instruction and inspiration, attending class in the multiroom, 6,000-square-foot treehouse that rambles over one end of the garden.
“The Poison Garden is a place of excitement and intrigue,” said the duchess, “especially for children. More seriously, it is a place for visitors to learn about the dangerous side of plants. Drugs are a major concern across the country and an emotive issue. Here we offer a new avenue to get people talking about the misuse of drugs—most of which grow in nature.” Cannabis, opium poppies, magic mushrooms and coca are among the garden’s plantings that required special government permission to grow.
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Visitors enter the Poison Garden dell under a miasma of “deliberately spooky” mist set forth by a copper snake that rears up from a grotto, hissing vapor triggered by movement sensors. Highlighting the garden’s hazardous nature, box-fringed beds are laid out in the shape of flickering flames. Garden guides issue a stern warning at the outset of tours: “Do not touch any of the plants. Don’t even smell them. There are plants here that can kill you.”
“Some of the plants have been quite hard to track down,” said Caroline Holmes, the garden’s poison horticulturist. “Most are not to be found in your local garden center. Conversely, one of the educational things about the garden is the fact that many are very familiar—foxglove, Christmas rose, euphorbia.”
According to Holmes, cultivation of most of the varieties is not difficult. “Venomous plants, like weeds, tend to grow prolifically,” she said. “Many entice their victims with their beauty, producing vivid flowers, interesting leaf patterns, attractive colored fruit or pods.”
Among the plantings in the garden: deadly nightshade, just three of the sweet-tasting berries can be lethal; hemlock, used for ancient Greece’s compulsory suicides in which rapid physical deterioration is accompanied by the mind remaining clear to the end; and mandrake, fabled to scream when touched.
Oddities learned along the way: Wild clematis, Old Man’s Beard, was once part of the equipment of professional beggars who rubbed its sap into scratches to make temporary but satisfactorily weeping ulcers. Monk’s pepper alters the hormonal balance in both sexes. Laburnum, a beautiful and popular shrub, causes convulsions, vomiting and frothing at the mouth when nibbled. Nibblers of strychnine, innocuously known as Quaker’s Button, can end up with its dramatic final symptom—a posthumous fixed grin. Henbane in the right dosage will take someone to the doors of death, but not through them. “You will look convincingly dead,” said Holmes, adding reassuringly, “but should recover.”
Also recovering are England’s protective garden groupies, now that Alnwick Castle’s garden has emerged as the third-most-visited garden in Britain among those that charge admission fees. As for the Duchess of Northumberland, it can be expected that she’ll continue to poke her head out above the parapets.