a paradise of poisonous plants    The Medici family built a famous beautiful botanical garden where they could welcome visitors and guests in Rome. The gardens they had built in Padua, however, were only known by a handful of people. The only people who knew of their existence were the gardeners and doctors who planted and cared for the poisonous plants grown there. At the end of the 20th Century, an unexpectedly proclaimed duchess in England, inspired by the collection of poisonous plants in Padua, designed an incomparable poison garden that features plants with poisonous and narcotic properties. The skulls and crossbones on the wrought iron gates to The Alnwick Poison Gardens warn the visitor: These plants can kill. It is not a marketing strategy to attract tourists either. There are over one hundred poisonous plants here. Amongst others you have the well-known Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Strychnos nux-vomica (strychnine) or Conium maculatum (hemlock). In The Alnwick Poison Gardens there are plants that can kill merely by touch or smell. And consequently there are special care and security measures taken. Who is these plants’ Poison Ivy? No, it’s not Urma Thurman clad in a body-hugging set of green overalls. Nor is it the Cramps’ guitarist in tight black overalls either. To be honest, we are not even sure if Jane Percy, the brains behind the gardens, and her two other gardening colleagues wear overalls at all. In 1995, Jane Percy’s husband inherited the title of Duke of Northumberland on the death of his brother… the title and Alnwick Castle.

Alnwick Castle was rather run down when the new Duke and Duchess began its renovation. Strange as it may seem, but sometimes when the cinema comes to your home, it can actually be helpful. The Hogwarts that appears in the first two instalments of the Harry Potter saga is Alnwick Castle. Jane Percy quickly realised that the gardens surrounding the castle were quite special. She did a little research and discovered that they had been designed in 1750 by the famous landscape architect Capability Brown. The gardens had gone through many changes down through the following years. In the 19th Century, it was one of the few gardens in this period of Victorian gardens to have a definite Italian touch. During the Second World War, it proved it was thriving with life as it went from a flower garden to a vegetable-producing allotment to help feed people on a daily basis. From the 1950s on it was abandoned. Jane Percy, the new Duchess of Northumberland, decided to breathe new life into the gardens and decided to create a garden dedicated to poisonous plants. The gates that warn of possible impending death were first opened to the public in 2005. In addition the poisonous plants, the gardens are also home to many other plants with medicinal and narcotic properties. Many of the latter needed special governmental authorisation before they could be planted and are kept inside metal cages. The gardens are guarded 24 hours a day to prevent theft and “accidents” from happening.

That said, we do not need to go to Northumberland to see poisonous plants. Nowadays, in this day and age where we instantly recognize and know dozens of different designer clothes brands but where birds are simply birds and trees just trees, we are unable to distinguish the different characteristics of the plants we see around us all the time. And we can find poisonous plants in even the most domesticated of floral spaces. For instance, the poisonous properties of the fruit and bark of the yew tree, which appears on the crest of Gipuzkoa, have been well-known here since Roman times. The beautiful purple common foxglove (digitalis purpurea), found in local forests and country trails, can be used in small quantities as a medicinal plant but it can be deadly if taken in larger doses. And, of course, there are other narcotic plants to be seen, but we are fairly sure that you know most of these already...You rogues!