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.
[And here, thanks to reader and podcaster Leslie Harris, I have to add a quick post-edit to this wonderful link illustrating our maddening tendencies: Doomscrolling at its finest. Enjoy.]
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
Haven’t lost a kid or cat yet and have all the usual suspects in the outdoor garden.
Excellent rant, ma’am!
Would it actually be easier to get rid of small children than poisonous plants? Or keep them in cages, perhaps ?(the children)
That is a very cunning way of promoting plastic plants, but are they digestible?
Thanks so much for the plug – the cheque is in the post……
It is an effortless plug Anne. When I’m feeling like a I need a smile and a commiserating, knowledgeable voice, I pick it up for a quick dip. Brava.
You should ask your publisher to reprint “The Bad Tempered Gardener” as the Amazon Link Marianne provided probably takes you to a list of used booksellers or remainder sellers. I know this because last year I purchased your book directly from one such reputable new/used indie seller within our region when someone else mentioned your book. Looking it up, I discovered that it was considered “Out of Print”.
It was a fun read and, as Marianne said, a good book to keep around when I’m between books or between magazine issues.
Thanks to both you and Marianne for the smiles these days!!
Hi Joan, glad to hear you bought the book. But the publisher has been bought and sold and I can’t imagine anyone there now would have any interest. It is out of print and I think sold out, but it is still available as an eBook.
Happy to make you smile! Xxxx
Anne, small children actually “get rid of themselves” – they grow up! But in the meantime, if one simply feeds them and actually pays attention, they don’t NEED to eat poisonous plants. Or as Marianne said, put the plants out of reach. Duh. I’m not sure but perhaps the hype is because people’s lives aren’t dramatic enough simply living so they create more drama or look for it? And it sells. Sigh. I’d rather putter amongst my houseplants or outside. Drama is so overrated.
Couldn’t agree with you more. Fear mongering is not something we need more of currently. According to the article does this mean we have to stop growing potatoes, rhubarb and tomatoes too? All have poisonous parts. Teaching your children early on not to put anything in their mouths is a good first step. Many pets and a couple of sons and haven’t lost anyone.
Thanks! My Facebook gardening groups are inundated with this idiotic fearmongering.
Great article as always, Marianne! I am an old chemist who trained in a time when we worked with bucket sized quantities of everything. Now I see an avalanche of news stories about toxic materials that supposedly require hazmat suits to clean up drop sized spills. No one seems to mention the LD50 levels of things now since the requirement to eat pounds of something before you get sick doesn’t grab headlines.
I wonder if the plastic plant purveyor is up to date on the current fear of microplastic pollution and resultant health crisis expected.
Fantastic point Ken. Anyone who has plastic plants in any kind of light for more than a year recognizes how quickly they break down and need to be replaced. -MW
Oh how I wish I had gotten to this topic first! But, in all honesty, I don’t think I could have blistered it as thoroughly. Just for fun, I’m thinking of calling several local biohazard companies for quotes on the responsible removal of houseplants from our home, being sure to receive satisfying answers regarding their ethical disposal, of course. No landfills, incineration, etc. I want them disposed of the same way the U.N. gets rid of landmines, for God’s sake. But let us not forget, too, the perils of plastic plants. So dangerous. Consuming one, of course, can lead to all kinds of intestinal issues and having one thrown at you because you had a spouse’s potted ficus professionally removed at great trouble and expense while they were away at work can lead to broken bones, lacerations, a concussion or even worse! And I know. I’m an expert!
You’re an expert in at least one area – making me laugh heartily. I’m thankful I got to the topic first as your comment betrays how beautifully you would have handled it, and we can’t have your stats besting mine – particularly as I insist on writing those book reviews….. – MW
Common sense should prevail! Everything is poisonous to someone or something. None of my children or animals,had a tendency to chew on plants.
Poke Sally did come up in my yard as a weed. Now that is a particularly dangerous weed! It may go unnoticed at 1st. It can grow 5ft tall. Its the reddish blue berries that are particularly attractive to children. They can look like small bushes of grapes. The stalks tend to be red,even a dog might try them.
I have fence full of ivy,dogs,cats dont bother it.
SIDE NOTE! Be aware when people like Orken come & spray chemicals in your neighborhood. There is an open lot next to my home,in a townhouse community.
I think they dumped some of there excess chemical there,since 2 trucks were parked at the curb.
My dogs play there while I garden or just sun themselves. 2 bigger ones were ok,but my chiwennie,got sick & was shakily walking. It happened quickly & never before. He was fine the next day. Pesticide companies usually leave signs when they spray your yard. They must of thought it was ok because it was a field of cut grass? Just keep aware & keep your fertilizer, bulbs etc out of reach. Love Garden Rant! Shellee
Poke Sally – love it! I love all the different common names for plants. (I know, a digression.) In reality, poke salad, poke Sally, poke weed, or, as most people in my neck of the woods call it, just simply poke, is very much edible, given the proper preparation. It’s best as new growth in the spring. My mother-in-law used to can it, and I loved it. She’d boil it, drain the water, boil it again. I don’t know how many times she repeated that. I’m sure it had absolutely no nutrients left, but it sure tasted good. I’ve also had it breaded and fried – delicious! Just don’t wait till it’s mature.
GREAT piece Marianne!
I found my 18 month old son with a purple mouth of pokeweed berries. Called poison control and they said if it was just a few, no problem. If he starts vomiting take him to the ER. He had zero symptoms other than a badly stained little face. Next morning his diaper had HUNDREDS of poke seeds!! Growing up in the 50s and 60s was so much more fun without all the over abundant precautions we are instructed to obey today. Our groceries are way more dangerous than any plants we might have inside.
Amen. – MW
Plastic plants… so environmental.
Huh. Who knew the garden and houseplants that help us reduce anxiety from fear mongering are now just one more thing to be anxious about? Imagine all the pharmaceutical companies that would go broke and political regimes that would fall if we all just turned off the news links and visited with our neighbors over the fence while we weed and harvest.
The amaryllid tribe is indeed poisonous BUT the TASTE is so nasty that I can’t imagine that any mammal will eat enough to get sick, much less die of it.
That MailOnline article reminds me of a paper’s different takes on royal wedding bouquets (could even have been the Mail, can’t remember). It was described as a lovely nod to past royal brides when the now-Princess of Wales chose certain flowers – very traditional ones – but when the Duchess of Sussex had the same flowers, there were revelations of them being poisonous, and lightly-veiled hints she might have been trying to assassinate Princess Charlotte with them (rolls eyes).
Rose has never forgiven me for poisoning her with daffodils. I’d cut some stems from the garden, put them in a glass of water, before transferring them to a vase. Rose comes in from a run, takes a big slug from the glass and, well, you guessed it. She gets sick to her stomach. Rose is eyeballing my beautiful ‘New Zealand Purple’ castor beans—homegrown weapons of mass destruction. It’s a dangerous world.
Allen, you are probably too far north to add oleander to your arsenal. What a shame!
Amen. I think we may be reaching the point of helicopter gardening. Does anyone fancy a visit to the Poison Garden at the Ainwick Garden in the UK, which features plants that can kill you? Could be a bucket list destination!
You know, I have never read a story of a child being poisoned by plants. Tide detergent pods yes, but not plants. Delicious-tasting drugs for kids yes, but not plants.
House plants, in my care, are in mortal danger. In terms of causing it… I just had no idea! 🙂
This was very very funny, M!
Loved this….I swear someone somewhere always has something to sell….”separating a fool from his money” or something like that…”P.T. Barnum”….What strikes me as flipping hilarious is how we, as Mamas, can hardly get our children to eat anything green (tears wailing gagging) and yet….any yet..they are eating the house plants??? I many many very toxic plants outside and grow them just for fun…(castor bean, angel trumpet, oleander and enough lily of the valley to kill an elephant…) but no pets or young children so ….whew I am safe!….remember y’all….fear and money are always and forever the click bait essentials….thank you for this..great read!!….
I have a cat who snuck out of the house and consumed some daylily. It was scary. Three thousand dollars later he is home in the refrigerator, dishwasher, dryer, washing machine, sink and rafters alongside ductwork. Sigh. The coolest cat ever! I have several Boston ferns (Lol), have turned lemon balm into a house plant and love oxalis. I finally invested in a metal and glass apothecary cabinet. I see more in my future. I can have my cat and toxic exotics too! Great rant Marianne!
Super piece M! Pretty well nails what’s rubbish about the world of tabloid (ie trashy) garden writing.
I am an avid gardener, though I certainly do not think I am an expert. But this sort of scare-mongering causes lots of eye-rolling and makes me crazy. I would like to see some stats and studies about how many kids in a year are poisoned by houseplants or daffodils. I’m betting it’s barely a blip. Thank you, Marianne, for being such a straight from the shoulder writer.