Little Shop of Horrors – the 1982 musical that got everyone’s attention with a man-eating plant – has nothing on Alnwick Gardens, located in Northumberland, England. Here, ever since 1995, the Duchess of Northumberland, Jane Percy, has tended a dangerously lethal bower. Whereas Little Shop of Horrors features Audrey II, the plant who devoured nearly the entire cast, Alnwick Gardens includes more than 100 dangerous plants, including henbane, belladonna, hemlock, and others, that pose an equally dangerous – and entertaining – hazard.
Percy and her husband, the Duke of Northumberland, came to the estate after the death of the previous duke, her husband’s brother. Although many titled families draw tourist income from their estates, such wasn’t the intent when the Duke suggested that his wife do something with the garden. These toxic gardens draw more than 600,000 visitors a year. Part of the attraction is Percy’s appreciation that her guests need a good story to go with the lethal foliage. Since history provides many instances of famous murderers who killed their victims with plants, this makes for a class trip quite unlike any other. Harry Potter fans are also drawn to Alnwick Castle because it served as the set of Hogwart’s Castle in the first two Harry Potter movies.
The 14 acre garden was designed by Belgian Jacques Wirtz, the famed landscape architect. French President Francois Mitterand sought the services of Wirtz for redesigning the gardens at the Élysée Palace in 1992, after which he went on to design the gardens of the Paris Tuileries in 1990. World renown, he was an obvious choice for this very special undertaking.
The idea of an apothecary’s garden commonly used to grow healing herbs is well known. However, Percy drew part of her inspiration from the Medici poison gardens in Padua, where the Medici family grew toxic plants to kill their victims. The Medici clan was hardly alone in cultivating lethal plants. This practice dates at least far as the poisoning of Socrates with hemlock, a plant also grown at Alnwick.
The toxic effects of plants at the Alnwick Garden are no joke. Signs strictly warn visitors not to sniff or touch the plants. Guest who don’t abide – as well as those with particular sensitivities – suffer the consequences and occasionally become sleepy from particularly soporific plants. Seven guests recently suffered side effects over the past year.
Percy is also drawn to the dual nature of some of her plants, which can work as aphrodisiacs, at least until the lethal effects kick in. Such plants include members of the Solanaceae family such as Brugmansia, a relatively of deadly nightshade. Not everything is cast in such a racy light, however; Percy gets in a bit of drug education, drawing from her cultivated marijuana and coca plants.
Regardless whether it’s sex, drugs, or botany, Alnwick Garden makes for a delightful side trip if traveling in the United Kingdom.