The Poison Garden

In the north of England, close to the border of Scotland, you will find one hundred infamous killers, imprisoned behind black iron gates adorned with skulls. And despite their harmful ways these ne’er do wells receive hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

The Alnwick Garden’s Poison Garden, created to house some of the world’s most deadly plants, is one spot you do not want to stop and smell the flowers. In fact, those who enter its dangerous grounds are prohibited from smelling, touching, or tasting any of the plants.

Despite the warnings, visitors have still fallen victim to the plant’s effects, with some people reportedly fainted from inhaling toxic fumes while walking through the garden.

Some of the plants you may encounter in the Poison Garden:

Ricinus communis (castor bean)

Castor beans contain a naturally occurring poison called ricin. If ricin gets within the cells of a person’s body, it prevents those cells from making the proteins they need to survive, killing those cells.

The most famous ricin poisoning occurred in 1978 when Bulgarian journalist, Georgi Markov, was attacked by a man who jabbed him with an umbrella, rigged to inject a poison ricin pellet under his skin.

Brugmansia (angel trumpet)

Originating in the Andes Mountains of South America, every part of the angel trumpet is potentially poisonous. If ingested it may cause hallucinations, paralysis, increased heart rate, memory loss and even death.

Beautiful to look at, the flower is anything but angelic. Extract from the plant has been used throughout history as both a potential truth serum as well as a drug to render robbery victims into ‘zombies’ unable to resist the demands of their captors.

Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade)

“Beautiful lady” in Italian, bella donna was a popular cosmetic in the Middle Ages. The juice of the berries was used as blush and the extract was diluted to make eye drops which would make the pupils of the eye dilate like someone in love.

Called deadly nightshade for good reason, juice from the plant or its berries was used to tip arrows with poison and eating a single leaf or 10 berries can cause death. Nightshade may have been used to the kill the Roman emperor Claudius.

Strychnos nux-vomica (strychnine)

Now commonly used as a rat poison, strychnine naturally occurs in Strychnos nux-vomica, a plant found in southern Asia and Australia.

Strychnine interferes with the chemical in the body that controls nerve signals to the muscles. Muscles then experience painful spasms and eventually tire stopping the person from breathing.

Conium maculatum (hemlock)

Derived from the Greek word konas, conium means “vertigo” or “whirl,” words that may accurately describe the symptoms of hemlock’s poison. A small dose in tea has an intoxicating effect but within two to three days will disrupt the central nervous system, eventually stopping the ability to breathe.

Socrates is hemlock’s most famous victim. When sentenced to death for refusing to publicly denounce his speeches and ideas, the Greek philosopher chose hemlock poisoning as the way he would die. 

Prunus lauroceras (laurel hedges)

Most parts of the common laurel hedge are poisonous, including leaves, seeds, and stems. The ornamental plant becomes even more deadly when trimmed, triggering difficulty breathing, convulsions and staggering.

In Victorian times, the cuttings of laurel leaves were used to create ‘death jars,’ a container in which a butterfly could be placed. Cyanide given off by the leaf would build up and kill the butterfly so it would leave a perfect corpse to be used in a collection.

Did you know?: Alnwick Castle, overlooking the garden, has served as the setting for Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films.

Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine Fall 2021

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