It’s Saturday, and ordinarily I’d think about a Six on Saturday post of plants in the garden or greenhouse. But the weather has been grotty for the past few days, with near constant cold rain mixed with occasional freezing rain, and although a few optimistic spring bulbs are sprouting, there’s hardly anything in bloom. The situation is a bit better in the greenhouse, but the dull gray weather isn’t the best for photographs, and honestly, it’s kind of cold and gloomy out there even with the propane heater.
So, I’m going to try something different. When not obsessing over orchid catalogs, I like to read science fiction novels, and although SF authors spend more time thinking about alien animals, they do occasionally pay attention to plants. Since it is Saturday, I have decided to limit this post to six novels–science fiction or fantasy–in which plants are significant to the plot, not just window dressing.
1. The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham
John Wyndham’s novels and short stories were some of the first SF that I swiped from Dad’s bookshelf. The Chrysalids is definitely my favorite, but I also enjoyed Wyndham’s novel about motile carnivorous plants, The Day of the Triffids. If you have seen the 1962 movie, you’ll recall that the Triffids are alien in origin, arriving as spores in a meteor shower which blinds anyone who views it, leaving them easy prey. In the book, however, triffids predate the meteor shower and are widely farmed for their oil. The protagonist thinks they were probably bioengineered behind the iron curtain. The mass blinding event is unrelated to triffids and simply allows the plants to escape cultivation and act as a particularly nasty invasive species.
closest real-world analogue: Thankfully there aren’t any carnivorous plants that can kill humans with a venomous whip and then tear off gobbets of decomposing flesh. However, the sticky substance that allows the triffids to also trap insects reminds me of the flypaper traps of sundews (Drosera species).
2. The Integral Trees, Larry Niven
The eponymous integral trees grow in the Smoke Ring, a torus of breathable air orbiting a neutron star. Since they live in free fall, they don’t have massive roots, and instead have a tuft of foliage at each end of the trunk. Unequal stresses on each end pull the tufts in opposite directions and cause the tree to take on the shape of the integral symbol in calculus. The plot of the novel is kicked off by a feature of an integral tree’s life cycle that has unfortunate consequences for the human colonists who live in its tufts, but like some of Niven’s other novels (most notably Ringworld) this is a book where the setting is more interesting than the characters or plot.
closest real-world analogue: Bromeliads like Tillandsia species, I suppose. Tillandsias use their roots primarily as holdfasts and can be grown with no substrate at all. It’s not difficult to imagine one growing successfully in free fall.
3. Great North Road, Peter F. Hamilton
In Great North Road, artificial wormhole portals have allowed travel to a number of extra-solar planets. One of them, St. Libra, has a complex vegetable ecosystem and no animals at all. The novel is a typical Peter Hamilton doorstop with a huge cast and interleaved subplots that include a murder mystery and a war against an alien menace that looks like it will be a long defeat. All of the subplots involve the plants of St. Libra in one way or another.
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4. The Serpent Sea, Martha Wells
Wells’s Raksura novels take place in a complex fantasy world inhabited by dozens of races, none of them human. The style is more swords-and-sorcery than epic fantasy, but the books also have an oddly science fictional quality; magic is treated like technology, and some of the characters are basically scientists. The main characters, the Raksura, are humanoids who can shape-shift into winged reptilian forms, but more interesting than that, they are eusocial. Although they are as intelligent as humans, they have biologically specialized castes rather like hive insects. Raksura colonies (courts) are mostly located in a rainforest region where they inhabit gigantic “mountain trees.” The Serpent Sea is the book in which mountain trees are introduced, and their biology drives the plot. But you should start reading with the first book in the series, The Cloud Roads. I can’t think of anything else quite like these novels.
Closest real-world analogue: The way that the eusocial raksura inhabit mountain trees parallels the way eusocial ants inhabit the galleries and tunnels of ant-house plants like Myrmecodia and Hydnophytum.
5. World Without End, Sean Russell
It has been about twenty-five years since I first read World Without End. At the time, I had never read a fantasy novel inspired by Georgian/Victorian natural science and exploration, so World Without End and its sequel, Sea Without a Shore, scratched an itch I hadn’t known I had. The protagonist is a young empiricist (i.e. scientist) who bears a more than coincidental resemblance to a young Charles Darwin, and his voyage in the story is more than a little like the voyage of the Beagle or the expeditions of Captain Cook. The plot hinges on the mysterious characteristics of Spuriverna regis, a plant collected by a previous expedition to that world’s equivalent of Polynesia.
closest real-world analogue: any herb that has, or is purported to have, medicinal qualities. Spuriverna regis is a member of the Verbenaceae, as is the Lantana in my garden.
6. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
Of course The Lord of the Rings. Along with everything else, LotR is an extended celebration of Tolkien’s love for trees. It’s largely the detailed description of trees throughout the story that make it feel so real, so grounded in places that are entirely believable. There are the willows in the Old Forest, the hollies outside Moria, the mallorns in Lothlorien, and the sad, dead tree in Minas Tirith. And the ents, of course. At the other end of the size scale, there’s Athelas. The outcome of the war of the ring would have been quite different without that little herb’s medicinal qualities.
closest real-world analogue: With their smooth silvery bark and golden leaves that don’t fall until spring, I suspect that mallorns look a lot like fancier versions of beech trees.
If this weren’t supposed to be a Six on Saturday post, I could go on…and on. There’s Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth). Ursula Vernon’s “The Tomato Thief” and “Sun, Moon, Dust” and Robert Silverberg’s “The Fangs of the Trees” are short stories, not novels, but otherwise fit the criteria. I’m tempted to mention Gerald Durrell’s satirical novel The Mockery Bird (so I will mention it). Its plot depends on the ecological relationships between a fictional bird, a fictional moth, and two fictional tree species, so I’ll consider it honorary science fiction (emphasis on the science).
What other novels and stories have very important plants?