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Dreaming of sheep-eating plants

Volume 9 Number 1 - January 2012

Matthew Jebb

When I tell teenage visitors to Ireland’s National Botanic Gardens (Glasnevin) that we have a living plant that can catch, kill and eat a sheep they are usually left speechless trying to decide if I am telling the truth.  Perhaps even readers of this article - who may be well-versed gardeners or garden educators will be equally suspicious of this claim? It does seem unlikely, but let me assure you it is perfectly true, and if you come to Glasnevin, and download one of our free audio tours to bring with you, you can see and hear about it at first hand.

It is my contention that to be successful, modern digital media must have two vital elements – firstly it has to be simple and preferably free, and secondly it must be intriguing, bizarre or outlandish.

The world of streaming media, whether visual or audio, must seize your attention or it will be drowned by background noise”

An outrageous mind-boggling story or headline is vital or your message isn’t going to attract attention.

Last year the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland produced a series of 30 audio clips and launched these in a number of formats – as downloadable podcasts, as a mobile phone application (app) and lastly as a souvenir ‘in-hand guide’ (w ). Mary Mulvihill, of Ingenious Ireland (, a science writer and broadcaster, conceived the audio tours idea. 

Mary is a broadcaster, a writer and a storyteller, and is passionate about sharing Ireland’s hidden heritage, especially its scientific brilliance and industrial archaeology.  She had previously made a radio series about the work of the botanic garden’s herbarium for the national radio broadcaster, Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTE) in 2007 (Washed, Pressed and Dried). She therefore knew that the place was brimming with ideas and quirky stories. Together we prepared a submission to the Department of Tourism, Culture & Sport under a ‘Cultural Technology Grant Scheme’ that ran in October 2010. The scheme was hugely oversubscribed so we were delighted to be chosen.

The grant was for €39 000 to cover the costs of recording, editing, final production and delivery of three themed tours.  A sound recordist and graphic designer were employed to ensure the final product was as professional as possible. Recordings were made both in the gardens and in a studio.  The tours were to be colour-coded and self-guiding, with about 10 stops, each lasting 2-3 minutes. The points of interest would be marked with numbered disks, and a map would be needed, showing the corresponding colour-coded and numbered signs, to guide visitors along the audio trail.  In as far as it was feasible, the intention was for the audio guides to be free of charge.

From the beginning we identified a number of alternative users: those with portable media player (mp3) players; those with traditional (non-‘smart’) phones which had memory card slots allowing the audio files to be sold pre-loaded on a removable flash memory card (microSD); those with Smartphones who could download an application (app) comprising a guiding map, images and audio files; and lastly those with no media technology of any description.

To get the audio to the user, a range of delivery options were possible. A set of downloadable podcasts on our website, along with downloadable map-guides, was going to be the basic product. We also considered the possibility of people downloading the tours at the gardens by USB link from a dedicated computer at the visitor centre. In the end this proved too difficult to implement.  Another possibility we considered was using Bluetooth wireless technology to allow visitors to load the audio files on arrival at the gardens. The costs of hardware and the difficulties with speed of delivery, especially when multiple users were trying to download, made this impractical as well.

For visitors with older phones with neither USB nor Internet connectivity we considered selling a pre-loaded, reusable 1GB microSD media card. The customer would in effect only pay for the card, the audio files essentially being free. The memory card would allow us to “past-proof” the project: ensuring that we could still reach the significant percentage of our target audience who were using older, non-‘smart’, phones.

An alternative past-proofing solution was an ‘In-Hand Guide’ manufactured by AudioConexus (  These low-cost, credit card sized units (although somewhat thicker!) are manufactured with an hour (or two) of audio, and come complete with headphones, a folded map with instructions and batteries sufficient to give 4 to 5 plays. The full set of three tours would have required a two-hour capacity, so we opted for a selection of 16 of the 29 stories, lasting just over 45 minutes.

With the funds available, we were only able to select one of these alternatives. The difference in price per unit was more or less comparable (ca. €5). In the end we decided the memory cards were little used in general, and were just not as visually exciting as the souvenir guides. At the launch, in April 2011, presidential hopeful Senator David Norris described the souvenir players as ‘cute as a button’. And they are indeed enchanting little pieces of technology. They come in a nicely designed box with a colourful map and various images. The cost of each player was just under €5, for a minimum order of 1,200 units. We also bought several hundred dual adaptors with extra headphones for €2, allowing two visitors to hear the tour together.  We sell the units at cost price, or at a discount with a souvenir guide. During the summer months they sold at the rate of nearly 20 a week, but considerably fewer in the winter.  To date we have sold, or given away, over 250 units and do not intend to place a fresh order. The purpose all along was for these to be a stop-gap, enabling the ‘non-techie’ visitor to enjoy the tours. 

We had initially dismissed the idea of developing a mobile phone app as the cost of development would have been in excess of €7000. In the end a chance discussion with a company called Ziggiapps presented the opportunity to develop an app at a highly competitive rate. The solution they developed meant we had a fully interactive map of the gardens with a range of images for each audio stop. In addition the identical app is available both to iPhone and android phone users. You can search on iTunes or Android Market using ‘botanic’ or visit the National Botanic Gardens website ( With apps a decision must be made early on to launch them for free, or for a small charge, this caused some debate, but eventually we decided to keep it free.

At the end of 2005 in Ireland there were as many active mobile phone accounts as the human population in Ireland (4 million). Trends suggest that by the end of 2011, 37% of all mobile phones in the country would be smartphones (

Irish mobile phone users download an average of one new app every week.”

Within 6 months of the launch, the app had been downloaded over 2,000 times with about an equal division between the two formats.

Every plant in our collection has a story to tell, and the audio tours have presented us with an excellent, unobtrusive way in which to bring these stories to as many visitors as possible. The stories are unashamedly wacky – A tree with no leaves, where is the soul of a plant?, the loneliest plant in the world.  As for the sheep eating plant… visit  or scan the QR codes to download the app and hear all about it!

There are three tours in the collection, each with 40 minutes of audio commentary.  The Green tour explores the famous glasshouse and palm house, and is suitable for cold or wet days; the Yellow tour is an easy stroll around the gardens historic highlights; and the Red tour is an extended walk to the river, for wildlife, roses and even some philosophy.  At each listening stop on the tour, there is a prominent label matching the tour colour.  Each stop is only about 2 minutes or so of audio allowing the visitor a chance to hear the story and admire the plant or building.  The stories were written and narrated by Matthew Jebb and Mary Mulvihill, as well as the gardens’ orchid expert Brendan Sayers, and wildlife guide Glynn Anderson.

Matthew Jebb
National Botanic Gardens of Ireland
Dublin 9