Happy Fall, y’all!
This week’s featured Swipefile is a fun one for Ian Fleming/James Bond fans, gardening fans, and/or… uh… poison fans.
I’ll put myself in the first category, which is why the story, Step Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Garden (If You Dare), originally caught my eye. A “Garden of Death” features heavily in the plot of the novel version of “You Only Live Twice,” so I was intrigued.
Turns out, that was warranted, because not only is the garden a fascinating thing unto itself, it’s also a great example of how to market something that’s usually hard to differentiate. (Though some garden enthusiasts are not pleased with the marketing angle, to say the least.)
The Story: Step Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Garden (If You Dare)
The article opens up by introducing us to the dangerous garden in question, the Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle’s Alnwick Garden in Northumberland, England. [Fun fact: Alnwick castle was used as Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter movies!]
- The Poison Garden is kept behind a pair of skull-and-crossbones bedecked black iron gates, and we’re warned that it’s home to “100 infamous killers.”
- We’re then introduced to [what, to me, was] a surprise: that the garden is not, in fact, ancient, or even old enough to be the inspiration for the James Bondian garden. It was the 1995 brainchild of Jane Percy, Duchess of Northumberland. [Another article I found says it didn’t actually open until 2006.]
- The garden was the result of Percy’s husband, the Duke of Northumberland, asking her to “do something with the gardens,” which were apparently a giant Christmas tree farm at the time. So, she hired a famous landscape architect to “reimagine” 14 acres of the land. It was successful, to say the least: Alnwick Garden (including the Poison Garden within it) now sees 600,000 visitors a year.
- Jane attributes the success to two things: having a good team [famous landscape architect—check!] and choosing to do “something really different” [after all, a garden is a garden is a garden… usually].
- While she was originally thinking of doing an “apothecary garden,” a garden of medicinal plants for healing, the article tells us that her visit to the “infamous Medici poison garden” gave her the idea of a garden that could kill instead of heal.
- [Funny thing here: if you try to find the aforementioned “infamous Medici poison garden” online, you’ll first end up on sites for the Botanical Garden at Padua, a UNESCO world heritage site. You’ll also discover that there really isn’t a poison garden there, infamous, or otherwise. (Like most gardens, though, it has plenty of poisonous plants.) You’ll also find that pretty much every reference to the “infamous Medici poison garden” is in an article about… Alnwick’s Poison Garden. Hmm.]
- Percy’s research also took her to the site of a medieval hospital in Scotland, where she learned about how poisonous plants were used, in smaller doses, as anesthetics and painkillers. [Note that this is about healing, though, not killing… MOAR HMM.]
- Then we get this line, which, since it makes me wonder a bit about the duchess, I’ll reproduce here in full: “I thought, ‘This is a way to interest children,'” she says. “Children don’t care that aspirin comes from a bark of a tree. What’s really interesting is to know how a plant kills you, and how the patient dies, and what you feel like before you die.” [Don’t get on the duchess’s bad side…?]
- We get an even more revealing peek into Percy’s thinking, though, when we’re told of her chief requirement when choosing which plants would make it into the Poison Garden: “the plants had to tell a good story.” One of those stories is how even common plants—like the “ubiquitous laurel hedge—can kill you, or at least make you pass out. [That last coming from a set of stories Percy has heard from “a few” who’ve told her it has.]
- I love the next bit, where Poison Garden visitors are told they are “prohibited from smelling, touching or tasting any of them,” which no doubt leads people wanting to do exactly that [a major issue in the villain Blofeld’s Garden of Death in You Only Live Twice]. Seven people have “reportedly [!] fainted from inhaling toxic fumes while walking through the garden.” Think that’s “overly dramatic”? Percy says it’s true, because she’s “seen health and safety reports.” [The reporter, however, seems not to have been able to see those same reports.]
- Lest you think the garden is simply a marketing gimmick [gasp!], no, it has an educational mission. That mission explains the presence of cannabis and coca plants, which provide a “jumping-off point for drug education.” From Percy: “It’s a way of educating children without having them realize they’re being educated.” [I’m going to guess most of them realize it anyway, no?]
- We get one last good story to tell about poisonous plants, that of Angel’s Trumpet. In small doses, as Victorian women apparently knew, it could induce a hallucinogenic episode. The duchess tells us it also serves, again in small doses, as an aphrodisiac, a point we’re really meant to take away, as the article mentions that fact not once, but twice, both in quotes from Percy, “It’s an amazing aphrodisiac before it kills you,” and “A great killer is usually an incredible aphrodisiac.” [And now I’m really wondering what those Victorian women were doing with their hallucinogenic, aphrodisiac Angel’s trumpet…in their tea. Ladies, ladies!]
- The article closes out acknowledging that, if nothing else, visitors to the Poison Garden will leave “with an entertaining anecdote,” and one final quote from Percy, arguably reinforcing the main message of her garden, “Most plants that kill are quite interesting.”
How you could use it…
I know my read of this article can come across as a bit snarky. But honestly, most of that snark is actually aimed at the writer of this piece who seems to have rewritten Percy’s marketing as a Smithsonian article. Journalistic standards and critical thinking aside, though, I don’t entirely blame her. At heart, I think Percy had a fantastic idea for helping her no-doubt-hideously-expensive-to-maintain ducal home maintain itself. [The need for noble families to do this is indeed a driving force behind the action of the Edwardian-era soap oper… er drama series, Downton Abbey.]
So, yeah, if I were going to use this story, I might use it as an example of how story can help differentiate your otherwise hard-to-differentiate product or service. Other ideas for what you could use it to illustrate:
- “Be careful what you wish for” [Not sure the Duke of Northumberland was expecting this outcome when he told the duchess to “do something” with the gardens!]
- How picking a lane means picking a side [As I mentioned at the beginning, one author is none too pleased with the fact that people might not find gardens interesting in and of themselves, or that the Poison Garden doesn’t really point out that pretty most plants are dangerous in high quantities….]
- That last point makes me think the Poison Garden is a great illustration of knowing who(m) you’re for—the Poison Garden isn’t for deep experts in plants. It’s designed (and marketed) to get people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested making a trip to see plants… to make a trip to see plants.
- I’m personally interested in the Poison Garden as an example of fiction inspiring reality… or of reality inspiring fiction which inspires reality (depending on which stories you believe about Percy’s inspiration)! Personally, I think it’s much more likely that the British Percy would know and be inspired by British Ian Fleming’s British spy novel and its famous Garden of Death (even if it were supposedly in Japan) than she would have been inspired by an actual, but non-poison, garden in Italy. But “infamous Medici poison garden” sounds good, even if it isn’t infamous… or even accurate.
As usual with diving deep into one of these stories, I fell down a few research rabbit holes, but that’s part of the fun. When you explore side notes or verify claims [hello, “infamous Medici poison garden”!], you often find all sorts of other, and sometimes more interesting, things… and even more sources for stories and illustrations.
For instance, discovering that Alnwick Castle was also the setting of the first two Harry Potter movies leads my brain in two additional directions. One, that lending a site to a movie is usually a significant money-maker for the owner of said site, which ties into the possible commercialization angle of the Poison Garden. Two, how many people noticed that Hogwarts changed between the second and third movies?! I’m no continuity expert, but I have seen each of those movies at least four times and never noticed. I’d like to think I’m an observant person, but most of us miss things exactly like this, thanks to a phenomenon known as “change blindness.” Voilà! A new story to illustrate that concept!
Diving deeper can also lead you to discover, as I did, when something isn’t getting reported quite accurately (or thoroughly). That kind of “let me just make sure” work is always a good idea, particularly when you’re about to use a really cool-sounding story or discovery in your content or work.
A story like this can be an incredibly interesting and entertaining way to engage your audience in your message, but not if they’re known or revealed to be inaccurate or false. That makes you seem inaccurate and false—and that’s never worth it.
So explore those gardens of great ideas, just make sure they don’t poison your credibility.That kind of 'let me just make sure' work is always a good idea, particularly when you're about to use a really cool-sounding story or discovery in your content or work. Click To Tweet
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