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Episode 23 - It Will Kill You


The Alnwick Poison Garden

Poison Garden. These Plants Can Kill.
The Alnwick Poison Garden

We have all heard the saying “April showers bring May flowers.” This proverb is actually longer, “March winds and April showers bring May flowers and June bugs. A period of discomfort or hardship can provide the basis for a period of happiness and joy. Even though science, it shows its actually true. Whereas this time of year professional gardeners and homeowners are prepping to get ready for this year's landscaping and maintenance be it your front lawn and flower beds or the 30 acres of your local golf course but in 42 acres of the Alnwick Gardens behind black gates adorning skull and crossbones with the words “these plants can kill” The level of stress I can only imagine is much higher caring for these plants.

The Alnwick Poison Garden more than likely was brought to everyone’s attention when a meme emerged from a picture of the front gates when either a Reddit or Tumblr user commented asking if they had a gift shop. The poison garden sits inside the Alnwick Garden located in Alnwick, Northumberland, England. The original garden was laid down in 1750 by the first Duke of Northumberland, Hugh Percy, and created by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, England's greatest gardener of the 19th century.

The third Duke of Northumberland of the same name would add his own contributions to the gardens bringing seeds from around the world and would actually grow pineapples in greenhouses in the gardens. In the mid-19th century Algernon Percy, the 4th Duke would create Italian-style gardens which are enclosed within walls with topiaries and fountains. During world war II the gardens were converted to provide food for the “Dig for Victory” campaign, where the allied governments encouraged their citizens to supplement their rations and boost morale. After WWII the gardens would fall into disrepair and closed in the 1950s.

Jane Percy, the current Duchess of Northumberland, would revive the gardens in the 1990s after he husband Ralph George Algernon Percy the 12th and current Duke of Northumberland suggested that she should renovate the Alnwick Garden. On her first visit, it was just rows of pine trees used to maintain Alnwick Castle and was completely overgrown with abandoned potting sheds and greenhouses along with rows of spruce pines for Christmas trees. Her husband the duke thought maybe she would just plant a few rows of roses and that would be it but her vision was to turn the Alnwick Garden to be a pleasure garden for the public to come to visit. Jane Percy was somewhat surrounded by controversy for reviving the garden as she said in an interview “In England if you’re married to a duke and do something on this scale, it's considered overly ambitious for a duchess, and the attitude is that you should stay in your castle.”

After redevelopment and reopening in 2001, the Alnwick Gardens sees up to 350k visitors a year since its reopening. With multiple phases which included the world's largest tree house, a miniature golf course with oversized insects that make you feel like you are in Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and a collection of 326 Japanese Cherry trees.

Jane Percy had the idea originally of an apothecary garden but after visiting the Medici family's poison garden in Italy, she loved the idea more of a garden of plants that can kill instead of heal. This idea of a poison garden would become more reinforced after she would visit the site of The Soutar Hospital, medieval Scotland’s largest hospital. Here should learn how the use of henbane, opium, and hemlock were used to anesthetize amputees during surgery in the 15th century. In an article from Smithsonian Magazine, she would say. “One of the things I hate in this day and age is the standardization of everything, Let's try something really different.” So in 2005, The Duchess would open the poison garden. One of the ideas behind the poison garden was more of a way to bring interest in plant life to children as how aspirin comes from the bark is boring but how plants can kill, the patient dies, and what you feel like before you die is more interesting. Her only requirement for the plants was they had to tell a good story. The garden includes over 100 species of poisonous plants. Some are phototoxic that can burn the skin all the way up to the plant that produces Ricin the most dangerous poison known to man.

You would think a garden this dangerous would be closed to the public but it's actually open to the public with strict rules of no touching and smelling the plants. They hold tours every 30 minutes during regular hours of operation.

Some of the plants you will find in the poison garden and shockingly very common plants people plant in their own gardens and are known as cottage plants in England.

  1. Ricinus Communis or the castor bean plant or hand of Christ. Which is in bright red in color. can make harmless castor oil but in a lab can produce ricin the world's deadliest poison.

  2. Strychnos nux-vomica (source of strychnine)

  3. Atropa belladonna is better known as deadly Nightshade. Four berries are strong enough to kill a child and women in Italy would drip the juices into their eyes causing their pupils to dilate to be more attractive to men.

  4. Laurel a common hedge plant that produces cyanide gas when it is cut or chewed on by animals.

  5. A common potted plant Brug Mansia or angels trumpet even toxic Victorians would grow this on their tea tables and knock the pollen into their tea to loosen tongues so to speak.

  6. Henbane produces a pungent scent that has caused visitors to the garden to faint and have up to three of these a week.

  7. Giant Hogweed can grow up to as tall as eight feet and is phototoxic will cause blisters in sunlight and could last up to seven years once the toxin enters your body.

  8. The Laburnum tree, the second most poisonous tree in the UK, blooms with yellow flowers in late spring or early summer and contains a poison known as cytosine.

  9. Rhododendrons contain a poison called grayanotoxin which attacks your nervous system. Bees that make honey from Rhododendrons will be red in color and cause hallucinogenic effects.

  10. Helleborus Niger, the Christmas rose that is white in color but contains a cardiotoxin in the roots known as helleborine that will slow down and stop your heart. Its sap also contains skin irritants.

Even though all these plants can kill you there are some that also produce medications.

  1. The Yew Tree is the most poisonous tree in the Uk producing the poison taxine that can kill you in 20 minutes and also produces a medication called Taxol that is used in breast cancer treatments.

  2. Meadowsweet and the willow tree produce salicylic acid, nature's version of aspirin in small doses but larger doses will thin your blood causing internal bleeding.

  3. Vinka Major or periwinkle in its more common name, if eaten will lower your blood pressure, cause heart arrhythmia, and stop the production of white blood cells but if you are being treated for leukemia the flowers produce four medications Vinblastine, vincristine, vinorelbine, and vindesine

The gardeners have to take special precautions when maintaining these plants from wearing just long rubber gloves up to their elbows when dealing with the phototoxic plants, all the way up to Tyvek suits, gloves, and face shields depending on how toxic these plants are.

The Alnwick Garden has three plants that are considered controlled substances opium, marijuana, and khat. A class 1 controlled substance similar to amphetamines for drug education to children on the effects they can have on your body. These plants are kept under cages inside the garden and staff with special licensing from the home office, similar to homeland security or the attorney general’s office here, have to keep a count of how many seeds they plant and how many will germinate. Along with photos of them being planted and dug up and destroyed at the end of the season and be filed with the home office once a year.

The head gardener jokes that these plants are very fascinating as they are a good way to get rid of your wife.

Periwinkle’s blue flowers are what is referenced in an old wedding poem or some Dr. Who fans might recognize, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” In which the bride’s garter would be made from these flowers as it was a way to enhance a bride’s fertility.

Alnwick Castle was used as a filming location for both the Philosopher’s Stone and the Chamber of Secrets. Harry and his classmates learned to fly broomsticks on the Outer Bailey, which is also where Harry learned to play the wizarding sport Quidditch.

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