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Wikimedia Commons // GeographBot//  CC BY-SA 2.0
Wikimedia Commons // GeographBot//  CC BY-SA 2.0

The Poison Garden of Alnwick Castle

Wikimedia Commons // GeographBot//  CC BY-SA 2.0
Wikimedia Commons // GeographBot//  CC BY-SA 2.0

You can’t say the people behind the Poison Garden didn’t warn you. The only way into the noxious nursery is through gates emblazoned with skulls, crossbones, and a warning: “These plants can kill.”

It’s just a small portion of the 42-acre gardens at Alnwick Castle in Alnwick, Northumberland, England—but it packs a big punch. From ricin and strychnine to coca (used to make cocaine), the Poison Garden is full of things people shouldn’t even smell, let alone touch or eat. And they’re deadly serious about the warnings: Guests have fainted from inhaling fumes as they merely walked through the garden. Many of the plants, such as the ricin, are grown in cages, to keep curious guests from getting too close. Most of the flora grown inside the gates required special government permission to grow.

The Poison Garden is the brainchild of Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, whose husband encouraged her to renovate the gardens when they moved into the castle in 1996. (We assume he was probably a little surprised when his wife began enthusiastically planting poison hemlock and belladonna.) She was inspired, in part, by the Medici poison garden in Padua, Italy.

One of Percy’s goals is to educate kids about botany and science in a way that actually interests them. "Children don't care how a plant cures," she has said. "They think that's boring. They want to know how it kills—and how agonizing the death is! ... More seriously, it is a place for visitors to learn about the dangerous side of plants. Drugs are a major concern across the country and an emotive issue. Here we offer a new avenue to get people talking about the misuse of drugs—most of which grow in nature."

If the crazy plants at Alnwick Castle seem like something straight out of Harry Potter, well, you’re not the only one who thinks so. Alnwick has been used for both interior and exterior shots of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. But even Professor Snape would hesitate before making any potions with plants picked from this garden.

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Weird
Massive Tumbleweeds Invaded a California Town, Trapping Residents in Their Homes
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For Americans who don’t live out west, any mention of tumbleweeds tends to conjure up images of a lone bush blowing lazily across the desert. The reality is not so romantic, as Californians would tell you.

The town of Victorville, California—an 85-mile drive from Los Angeles—was overtaken by massive tumbleweeds earlier this week when wind speeds reached nearly 50 mph. The tumbleweeds blew across the Mojave Desert and into town, where they piled up on residents’ doorsteps. Some stacks towered as high as the second story, trapping residents in their homes, according to the Los Angeles Times.

City employees and firefighters were dispatched to tackle the thorny problem, which reportedly affected about 150 households. Pitchforks were used to remove the tumbleweeds, some of which were as large as 4 feet tall by 4 feet wide.

"The crazy thing about tumbleweeds is that they are extremely thorny, they connect together like LEGOs," Victorville spokeswoman Sue Jones told the Los Angeles Times. "You can't reach out and grab them and move them. You need special tools. They really hurt."

Due to the town’s proximity to the open desert, residents are used to dealing with the occasional tumbleweed invasion. Similar cases have been reported in Texas, New Mexico, and other states in the West and Southwest. In 1989, the South Dakota town of Mobridge had to use machinery to remove 30 tons of tumbleweeds, which had buried homes, according to Metro UK.

Several plant species are considered a tumbleweed. The plant only becomes a nuisance when it reaches maturity, at which time it dries out, breaks from its root, and gets carried off into the wind, spreading seeds as it goes. They’re not just unsightly, either. They can cause soil dryness, leading to erosion and sometimes even killing crops.

[h/t Los Angeles Times]

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Afternoon Map
A New NASA Map Shows Spring Is Coming Earlier Each Year
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Climate change is shifting Earth’s seasons. Winters are getting shorter, and the warmth of spring has started to arrive earlier and earlier, messing with the timing of processes like animal migrations and the budding of new plant growth. In a series of graphics spotted by Flowing Data, the NASA Earth Observatory shows how much earlier new leaves are arriving in some parts of the U.S., and how much earlier they reach full bloom.

The data comes from a 2016 study of U.S. national parks, so the maps only cover seasonal changes within the park system. But since there are so many parks spread across the U.S., it’s a pretty good snapshot of how climate change is affecting the timing of spring across the country. The map in green shows the difference in “first leaf” arrival, or when the first leaves emerge from tree buds, and the map in purple shows the arrival of the first blooms.

A map of the U.S. with a colored grid showing where leaves are coming earlier
Joshua Stevens, NASA Earth Observatory

Around 75 percent of the 276 parks analyzed in the study have been experiencing earlier springs, and half had recently seen the earliest springs recorded in 112 years. In Olympic National Park in Washington, the first leaves are now appearing 23 days earlier than they did a century ago, while the Grand Canyon is seeing leaves appear about 11 days earlier. National parks in the Sierras and in Utah are seeing leaves appear five to 10 days earlier, as are areas along the Appalachian Trail. Some parks, however, particularly in the South, are actually seeing a later arrival of spring leaves, shown in dark gray in the graphic.

A map of the U.S. with a colored grid showing where blooms are coming earlier
Joshua Stevens, NASA Earth Observatory

The places that are witnessing earlier first blooms aren't always the ones with extra-early first leaves. The Appalachian Trail is blooming earlier, even though the first leaves aren't arriving any earlier. But in other places, like Olympic National Park, both the first leaves and the first blooms are arriving far earlier than they used to.

“Changes in leaf and flowering dates have broad ramifications for nature,” National Park Service ecologist John Gross explained in the Earth Observatory’s blog. “Pollinators, migratory birds, hibernating species, elk, and caribou all rely on food sources that need to be available at the right time.” When temperatures get out of sync with usual seasonal changes, those species suffer.

[h/t Flowing Data]

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