Yesterday, a friend in the UK turned my attention to the type of sensationalist tabloid online article that we should be trying to turn our attention away from. No, no politics involved. Just that old chestnut of how terribly poisonous many houseplants/garden plants are, with at 34-word title invoking terror, horror, children and of course, the big one, ‘DEATH’ in all caps no less.
Published by the most visited newspaper website in the world, the MailOnline – a division of the UK’s highest circulated daily newspaper, The Daily Mail — the article is found under their Science tab and is a predictable mix of a) an interviewed expert; b) plants most of us have sitting on a bookcase minding their own business; and c) all the ways you are going to kill or poison all the children, pets and people dearest to you this year.
Get ready to start quaking.
But this one is a little different. Because if you manage to stop focusing on 1000+ words of doom and liver failure juxtaposed with favorite houseplants for home and hearth, and you pay attention to the details, you find that the “horticulture expert” just happens to own a company that sells artificial plants.
Possibly…just possibly…we’ve got a conflict of interest here. But why focus on that (believe me they don’t) when a website read by the best part of 200 million people each month needs to be terrified of their granny’s potted English ivy. Someone typed this (I won’t say “reported”) with a straight face:
‘English Ivy leaves and berries are hazardous to small children and family pets,’ said Alder. ‘If you do have English Ivy in your home you should make it a priority to have it removed by a professional.’ [my emphasis]
And you thought you only needed hazmat suits for asbestos. So naïve. During what is no doubt going to be an incredibly difficult, grim, and expensive winter for all of us in the Northern Hemisphere, we should prioritize getting the English ivy out of our homes — much less our gardens — by a professional team. Brilliant.
“Well, we’re cold as hell ‘cause there ain’t no heating oil, but thank God we got that ivy out of here Mother.”
Aren’t We Bored of Hysteria Yet?
The Daily Mail is known for its sensationalism, granted. And before the comments section is flooded with politics and partisanship, as The Mail traditionally supports the conservative party, I just want to say this is not in any way a right/left thing. It is just a thing. I’ve seen too many similar articles to break this down into the neat little boxes where we all prefer to play these days.
However, I can break it down into three ugly little boxes that are perfectly valid:
- Websites Need Clickbait
- Reporters Need Copy
- Experts Need Publicity
Websites Need Clickbait
We all understand this. We hate it, but we understand it. Even when you specifically choose not to write or choose topics this way, as we do on GardenRant, you can still see the phenomenon play out in stats, where for instance, book reviews are often the least visited pages (you’re missing out people), but those which wax political or take a controversial (and therefore provoking) stance, are often the most visited.
I trust I’ll be forgiven for the title of this piece, which is tepid compared to the over-the-top adjectives used to liberally pepper The Mail’s daily fare.
Clicks sell ads. Ads pay bills. It’s as simple as that.
Reporters Need Copy
Even in a world that provides outrageous events every two minutes, reporters are still hungry for new topics that interest the broadest amount of people. Houseplants are in. Fear is in. Children and pets are always in. How can you not sell a clickable goldmine like that to your editor? Just need an expert and we’re good to go. Or did the expert come to you?
Experts Need Publicity
For the be-all-end-all-dripping-in-honesty-oh-my-God-she-didn’t-actually-say-that treatise on the concept and definition of garden experts, I have to send you to our own Anne Wareham and her fabulous book The Bad Tempered Gardener. Her chapters entitled “Experts” and “Status” should be required reading for all gardeners – not just the cynics. And since she covers the concept so well, I’ll leave that to her.
What I’d rather discuss briefly, or rather, air out on the laundry line – right along with my own underwear – is that most quoted ‘experts’ (whether they are bestowed that title in the realm of decorating the home, demystifying tropical plants, reassessing your life choices, or inserting a spark plug) need publicity to sell something.
Themselves, their book, their YouTube channel, their company, their fill-in-the-blank.
That’s fine. It has been. It will be. I very much hope that as a result of this article you march down to your local bookstore and demand that you be sold a copy of The Bad Tempered Gardener without further delay. And tell them to throw in a copy of Tropical Plants and How to Love Them while you’re at it.
What I object to is sensationally frightening the pants off people about their plants. Or hidden — or at least thinly veiled — agendas in ‘news’ articles.
And before the charge of thinly veined agendas is turned and aimed at me as a tropical enthusiast, I must state for the record that I’d have the same problem if hellebores stood in the crosshairs and not philodendron. In fact, I’ve defended planting [poisonous] hellebores in the past from an officious (but always well meaning), Master Gardener volunteer, so there.
Experts Weigh In
In the case of Paul Alder – variously termed a “horticulture expert” and “houseplant enthusiast” throughout the article, he actually IS a well-qualified Kew-trained horticulturist, and five-time Chelsea medal winner. Not that you’ll get those silly academic details from the reporter. ‘Expert’ is all we need these days to keep reading.
Mr. Alder’s qualifications are a damn sight better than mine, and I have no doubt that he loves plants. And that he loves people and puppies. But he probably also loves his artificial plant company, Vistafolia, which won’t be harmed by millions of people primed to a whole new paranoia by reading his words in The Mail on the following:
“Because of the Philodendron’s popularity with homeowners, you may already have them in your home. If you do, and you have small children you should consider getting rid of them or replacing them with an artificial version of the plant.” [my emphasis]
Though I do have my limits, I’m not anti-artificial plant. I’m simply anti-fear. And there are almost no limits to irrationality when fear is a motivator.
For instance, for those of you with small pets and children who are reckless enough to have picked up a bag of daffodils this week, you need to take them back at once. Don’t even think about planting them.
“All parts of the daffodil contain lycorine, a toxic chemical that can be lethal if ingested in large amounts.” says Stacy Liberatore, our reporter with her finger on the pulse of potential home poisoning catastrophes.
Mr. Alder adds his expert opinion for those impulse-purchasers amongst you who really don’t feel like heading back to Costco and standing in the returns line: “If you have small children or pets you should avoid growing daffodils at home.’
Right. Got it. Maybe I’ll just grow weed instead. That’s very popular right now.
You know what else contains lycorine? Galanthus (snowdrops). Lycoris. Clivia. Leucojum. Zephyranthes. Hippeastrum (damn there goes Christmas). Pretty much anything in the Amaryllidoideae subfamily. It’s one of the reasons that deer don’t eat those terrifying daffodils.
Caution is Good. Constant, Unrelenting Fear is Paralyzing
Accidents can happen. Even when we wrap ourselves and our loved ones in bubble wrap, accidents can happen. They do happen.
My good friend lost her 2-month-old puppy when he nosed around under an old shrub and ate a 2 inch piece of….old shrub. Not a poisonous old shrub either. Perforated his intestine. Broke her heart.
We should be cautious; but seriously folks – we are rapidly moving into a world where risk outweighs reward every time. Is that the world in which we wish to live? Is it a world in which we can learn and expand our horizons?
No you don’t want your toddler to eat your plants. You don’t want them chewing on your coasters, or swallowing your marble collection either. So chances are you’re going to put those things up where they can’t get them.
And, if you’ve got a pet that chews anything green, you’ve got challenges. But let’s not overstate them in the quest to sell copy – and plastic plants. Petro-chemicals aren’t that good on the liver either.
Nor is fear on the brain. – MW