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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Saturday 6th August 2011

Good news; a new series of ‘Only Connect’ starts on BBC4 in less than two weeks. If you’ve never seen it, or you aren’t in the UK so don’t even know what BBC4 is, ‘Only Connect’ is about the most challenging quiz show ever devised for TV. It’s not just about knowing lots of stuff, like University Challenge, it is about having an agile brain and quickly thinking about everything you know about four different things at once. It’s one of those quizzes where you feel really proud of yourself if you get one right answer in half an hour.

But, what is the return of my favourite TV programme got to do with this website? Well, the way I learned about the new series provides a reminder of the difference between websites and books and made me think, again, about the information on this site.

The presenter of ‘Only Connect’, Victoria Coren, has her personal site including a blog and I drop by occasionally to see what she’s been writing there. When I visited the site, today, there was a blog post about the new series with an explanation that she thought people might not have visited the ‘News’ page of her site and might not have noticed the sentence in the right-hand sidebar saying the new series was coming. If I’m typical, she was right to use the blog to repeat something that appears in two other places already.

And that’s where it made me think about this site. If you’ve read every word on every page you will already know most of what follows but experience suggests that it is very unlikely that you read more than a small part of it.

I started this website after I finished working at the Alnwick Garden. One reason I left was because I knew people wanted to know more than they learnt on the short tours we took around the Poison Garden but the management of the garden didn’t want to provide any further information. They didn’t even want me to give talks away from the garden although these, quite obviously, would have helped promote the venue as a whole.

I decided on the name ‘The Poison Garden’ because, as it says on the homepage ‘every garden is a poison garden’. I think it is important to walk the line between making the stories of these plants interesting and making them seem so dangerous that people will think they should be kept under close control.

Narcissus, daffodils

When I first built the site I included a note, in a box on the homepage, to the effect that there was no connection between this site and the Alnwick Garden. That didn’t stop people contacting me asking about opening times and other things that had nothing to do with me. So, I added a short paragraph at the bottom of every page hoping that more people would realise there is no connection. It seems to have helped though it is not 100% effective.

The problem with websites is that you can never be sure that people have read the whole story. On a site like this that means you can’t afford to start to say something at the top of a page and then complete it at the bottom. Take something like the daffodils, plants in the Narcissus genus; you might describe them as the cause of more poisoning than any other plant but, if you don’t immediately follow that by saying that the effects are not generally worse than a nasty stomach upset, you might leave people thinking they should destroy daffodils wherever they see them.

Imagine if there were the same hysteria about daffodils growing along the roadside as there is about Senecio jacobaea, ragwort, because people had only read half the story of the plant. Of course, you don’t need to imagine the situation because that is precisely what happens with ragwort; people read that it can kill horses but don’t read more and find out the big difference between ‘can’ and ‘does’.

Much as I try and give a balanced picture about these plants, I can’t always stop people taking away the wrong conclusions and I urge you not to believe anything you think you have learned here. As a wise man once proclaimed ‘Nothing I say is true’. The trouble is he was discovered to be lying.


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