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Dare to Explore the Lethal Landscaping of England’s Poison Garden

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The gate at the Alnwick Poison Garden is a spooky sign of what's inside. (Photo by Steve F/Wikimedia Commons)

Skulls and crossbones bar the locked gates on Alnwick Castle's grounds, 35 miles north of Britain's Newcastle upon Tyne. "These plants can kill," signs warn. Don't be scared, though. Beyond lies a charitable trust — and one of North East England's biggest tourist attractions: The Poison Garden.

Among its 100-odd intoxicating inhabitants grow cannabis, opium and hemlock, the plant that sent Socrates to his demise. Poppies, foxglove and belladonna also number among the "inmates," as staff members like to call the fatal flora.

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Right: Suspended walkways and steps lead to the giant treehouse at Alnwick Garden. (Pawel Libera /VisitBritain …

This deadly destination lurks beside one of Europe's largest inhabited castles, which earned supernatural street cred as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. The turrets, ramparts and "lost cellars" may be closed for winter, but the garden is still going strong ($6 for children, $18 for adults). It magics up Halloween events from wand crafting to pumpkin carving and bewitching performances of Shakespeare's terrible trio from "Macbeth."

Visitors can also explore the world's largest wheelchair-accessible treehouse, which stays open later in the year to celebrate Christmas dinner and a five-course New Year's banquet.

"I wondered why so many gardens focused on the healing power of plants rather than their ability to kill," said the poison garden's creator, Jane, the Duchess of Northumberland. "Most children I knew would be more interested in how a plant killed, how long it would take, and how gruesome and painful the death might be."

The mother of four unveiled her lethal landscaping a decade ago, sparking controversy from all sides. Since then, 3.8 million visitors have infused about $240 million into the county's economy, according to a study by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The charismatic, can-do duchess announced earlier this month that she'll prune her involvement down from its current daily doses by 2015. That will allow more time for another project she has on the boil: "The Poison Diaries," a trilogy of novels for teens.

But a fresher, flashier romance could upstage the duchess's 18th-century fiction, as her son George Percy — the heir to Alnwick (pronounced "ANN-ick") — keeps company with Pippa Middleton, Kate's younger sister. Last spring, the two close friends had tabloids cooking up potent rumors again.

As "The Poison Diaries" say, "in the right dose, everything is a poison. Even love…"

by Amanda Castleman

Top: The gate at the Alnwick Poison Garden is a spooky sign of what's inside. (Photo by Steve F/Wikimedia Commons)

Right: Suspended walkways and steps lead to the giant treehouse at Alnwick Garden. (Pawel Libera /VisitBritain)

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