Recently I’ve seen a fair number of posts circulating on social media, alongside articles like this one, about the Alnwick Poison Garden. Filled with 100+ toxic plants, the entrance of this garden is flanked with enormous black iron gates decorated with skulls and crossbones, and a dire warning to any who are entering it on one of the guided tours. The Alnwick Poison Garden, located at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England, was a filming location for the first two Harry Potter films, and brings in over 800,000 visitors a year.
Sounds awesome, right? Maybe in concept. But “poison gardens” have long been a thorn in my side (sorry for the gardening pun), and it’s time we talked about them.
Here’s the reality: a so-called “poison garden” is basically a haunted house for people who are really into cottagecore.
First of all, let’s be clear about the “history” of the Alnwick poison garden. Conceptualized in 1995, it was officially open in 2005. Supposedly, the duchess was inspired after a trip to Italy, where she viewed the Medici poison garden. But the Medicis didn’t have a “poison garden.” They had a regular garden whose main purpose was to create compounds for perfumes. Planted by Catherine de Medici, the garden got its sinister reputation from the French, who viewed Catherine (an Italian) with suspicion and thought she engaged in witchcraft. Their evidence of this came, in part, from her perfume garden.
Like all gardens, the so-called “poison gardens” of today are not some kooky, insidious medieval garden that a court wizard designed to usurp the king in a convoluted, Disney-esque plot to rise to power. Which is not to say gardens in medieval times wouldn’t have included narcotics and herbs to be used for medicinal purposes. But the Alnwick garden doesn’t resemble what a medieval herb garden would look like. Sure, it has opium poppies, and belladonna, both items traditionally used for pain relief and cosmetic purposes. But other medicinals, like St. John’s Wort and witch hazel, are absent. And many of the garden’s “poisonous” plants include ones that aren’t actually poisonous at all except under specific circumstances. For example, the castor plant (which can be found at Alnwick) is a source of the deadly poison ricin, but also the source of harmless castor oil. And rhubarb (a plant you probably associate with pies and which cannot be found at Alnwick) has poisonous leaves.
Some of the plants at Alnwick are pitifully common, including foxglove, hemlock, and laburnum.
Oh, the garden also includes cannabis. Whether or not D.A.R.E. was involved in the planting of that one, we can’t say, but it explains why all the tours are guided. Don’t want any 13-yr-olds plucking “souvenirs.” (As an aside, the Alnwick Garden is quite proud of its “drug education” angle. It also grows coca, from which cocaine is derived.)
What the garden fails to accurately represent is just how many plants are poisonous. It’s somewhere between “most” and “all.” If you have houseplants, you might very well be keeping a poisonous plant yourself without even realizing it. Some examples of outrageously popular, and outrageously toxic, household plants include peace lilies, pothos, and caladium. If you’re an outdoor gardener, you might have oleander, or azalea bushes (they famously killed Sparky!). In my own home, my two prized plants are both toxic. One is a 30-year-old croton, whose leaves can cause vomiting and diarrhea, and the other is gout stick. You’ll note that it has a whole subsection on Wikipedia about its toxicity, including the line, “…ingesting as few as three untreated seeds can be fatal to humans.” I got it at Lowe’s for seven or eight dollars and it hangs out on my front porch, popping off three seeds every 90 days or so, doing its plant thing with a total disregard for whether or not it might end up killing Sparky.
Ultimately, if you take away the gate, then the Alnwick Garden looks pretty much like a normal garden. This is great marketing. Whenever people talk about the “poison garden” they always share pictures of the gate or of the little plaques next to the plants, not the garden itself, because the truth is, a lot of poisonous plants look benign or unremarkable, which is why you should never eat a plant if you aren’t 100% CERTAIN about what that plant is.
And despite the intrigue that surrounds Alnwick, it’s by no means the only so-called “poison” garden. There’s one at Blarney Castle and, arguably, one on my front porch. Alnwick is mostly unique because of its creepy black iron gates.
Like a haunted house, poison gardens sacrifice authenticity for spooky, over-the-top camp. And that’s a shame, because plants don’t have to be deadly to be interesting. There are some plants with truly fascinating properties (for example, giant hogweed) and wild histories (saffron, for one), and the garden could have opted to focus on and promote that instead of going for the more shallow and less accurate “dEaDLy tOxiNs!” angle. (A note: the garden does, in fact, have giant hogweed, one of its lesser-loved plants. Unlike the marijuana, it isn’t kept in a cage, though it probably should be.)
The most groan-worthy part of the Alnwick poison garden marketing comes from its own website: “Visitors are strictly prohibited from smelling, touching, or tasting any plants, although some people still occasionally faint from inhaling toxic fumes while walking in the garden.” First of all, you are typically prohibited from touching or tasting plants in a botanical garden. Second of all, what “fumes?” Do they have a Gasoline Tree? I’m curious which particular plant or fume is causing people to pass out. Third, how is it that these potent toxic fumes are remaining within the confines of the gate in an outdoor, open-air garden? It’s remarkably telling that to enter this oh-so-dangerous area, it requires no health waiver whatsoever, and costs £13.00 (£5.00 for kids).
Now, all this isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy a poison garden. It’s just that the whimsical over-dramatization of the poison garden comes at the cost of actual education. If you’re botanically inclined, I implore you – stop pitching the concept of a “poison garden” and start pitching the concept of simply, “a garden.” Putting a black metal gate covered in crossbones over the garden is appealing only in the shallowest of senses. The plants behind it bear interesting and complex narratives. If you’re someone with an interest in botany, do yourself a favor; take “poison garden” history with a grain of salt, and do some additional research. As is the case with many tourist traps, the most insidious element of a poison garden is probably the gift shop prices, and the true history is far more nuanced.