Six science fiction and fantasy novels with important plants (SoS #63)

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).

Picture of a sundew growing in a bog
Drosera intermedia growing in a bog, Quoddy Head State Park, eastern Maine.
IMG_3437-crop
The same species in Vestfold og Telemark, Norway. These guys get around.

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.

tillandsia
This seems to be the only picture of Tillandsias that I have: a twenty-year-old low-resolution image of Tillandsia caput-medusae (top) and Tillandia bulbosa.

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.

closest real-world analogue: This is a spoiler, so I’ll transform it by rot13. Gur cynagf ner gur ovbybtvpny pbzcbaragf bs n cynargnel pbafpvbhfarff, onfvpnyyl gur Tnvn ulcbgurfvf eha nzhpx, fb gur pybfrfg erny-jbeyq nanybthr zvtug or sbhaq va gur erprag erfrnepu fubjvat gung gerrf bs qvssrerag fcrpvrf pna fjnc ahgevragf ivn zlpbeeuvmny pbaarpgvbaf orgjrra gurve ebbgf–n fbeg bs fybj pbzzhavpngvba.

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.

platytyrea-mossman
Myrmecodia platytyrea

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.

L_camara
Lantana ‘Miss Huff’

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.

Fagus_grandiflora
Do you think the elves grew bonsai mallorns? (Photo shows an American beech, Fagus grandifolia, at the 2019 Winter Silhouette Bonsai Show)

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?

Six on Saturday #18, December 9, 2017: books for piedmont gardeners

sleet
Yuck.

For the past twenty four hours, we have had more or less constant rain and sleet with temperatures hovering right around freezing.  The ground is warm, so we don’t have much accumulation.  But the weather doesn’t make me want to go outside, not even to the greenhouse.  This is a day for lighting the wood stove, drinking tea, and reading.

Reading.  If I write about gardening books, I won’t have to go outside.  So, for my first “Six on Saturday, Library Edition,” here are six books that I think will be of interest to gardeners in the NC piedmont (and, perhaps, further afield).

1. Elizabeth Lawrence (1991). A Southern Garden,  University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London.

southern-garden

A Southern Garden was originally published in 1942 and has remained a favorite of North Carolina gardeners ever since.  Elizabeth Lawrence structures her book around the four seasons, describing the bulbs, perennials, and shrubs blooming throughout the year in her Raleigh garden.  The book is an eloquent description of the joys of gardening in the south, and its advice is still valid.  At the end of the book are exhaustive tables indicating earliest and latest date of first bloom and length of blooming season collated from notebooks kept by Elizabeth Lawrence and her mother.  The index of my 1991 reprint includes updated botanical nomenclature, as well as the names originally used by the author.

2. Nancy Goodwin, with illustrations by Ippy Patterson (2005).  Montrose: Life in a Garden, Duke University Press, Durham and London. 

Montrose

This book can be viewed as an updated successor to A Southern Garden.  As indicated by the title, it is a month by month account of life in Montrose, Nancy Goodwin’s garden in Hillsborough, North Carolina.  Descriptions of plants and animals are interspersed with anecdotes from the Goodwins’ life and beautiful black-and-white or color illustrations by Ippy Patterson.

3.  Scott Ogden (2007).  Garden Bulbs for the South, Timber Press, Portland.

bulbs-south

Many books on bulbs focus on plants suitable for northern Europe, or the northeast and northwest United States.  It is great to find a book covering those bulbs that grow well in the southeast and return year after year.  In addition to describing heat-tolerant varieties of old favorites like daffodils and tulips, Ogden provides welcome information on southern specialties like Crinum, Lycoris, Hymenocallis, and ornamental gingers.

4.  Albert E. Radford, Harry E. Ahles, C. Ritchie Bell (1964, 1968).  Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

books

This massive tome (1183 pages) is invaluable for identifying wild flowers and garden weeds or for determining if native plants offered by nurseries are really native or just “native.”  Each genus has a key of native and introduced species, and the range maps show distribution in North and South Carolina at the level of counties.  My main problem with this book is the same issue I used to have with encyclopedias (for the youngsters, those were like wikipedia printed out on paper and bound in multiple volumes).  When paging through to find a plant that I have identified in the index, I am often so distracted by other plants that I forget which page I was looking for.  It sometimes takes be three or four returns to the index before I actually get to the plant I originally wanted to read about.

5.  William Chambers Coker and Henry Roland Totten (1945).  Trees of the Southeasten States, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Trees

Although smaller than Vascular Flora of the Carolinas, this book is just as distracting when I am searching backwards from the index.  I found this 1945 second edition (first edition, 1934) in an old bookshop in Charleston, South Carolina.  My copy came with an inscription from “As You Like It” written by the original gift-giver, and old dried leaves, presumably inserted by the gift recipient.  The authors were professors of botany at the University of North Carolina, and the scientific summaries are leavened with delightful descriptions of individual trees they knew and loved.  Many of those trees have been replaced by houses and shopping centers, but some, particularly those on the UNC campus, can still be seen.

6.  Bernard S. Martof, Wlliam M. Palmer, Joseph R. Bailey, Julian R. Harrison III, photographs by Jack Dermid (1980).  Amphibians and Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia.  University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

amphibians-reptiles

Gardens aren’t just about plants. Hopefully, we are also creating habitat for native wildlife.  To identify the creatures sharing your garden, you could use the Peterson’s field guide covering the eastern U.S. or the Audobon Society Guide covering all of North America, but this book focusing on three states has much more relevant detail and more useful range maps.  I like to use the margins for notes indicating when I see a particular species for the first time.

That’s my six for this week.  For more Six on Saturday posted by gardeners who might actually have gone outside, head over to the Propagator for the proprietor’s Six and links to other blogs.

Book Review: The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa

This book review was also published in the most recent issue of The Bulb Garden, the newsletter of the Pacific Bulb Society.

Amaryllidaceae cover

Graham Duncan, Barbara Jepp, and Leigh Voigt (2017). The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa, Umdaus Press, Pretoria, South Africa.

When I first learned of the impending publication of The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa, I wondered whether it would be worth purchasing.  After all, a huge amount of information on South African amaryllids is already available without cost at web sites like the PBS wiki or PlantZAfrica.com, a site maintained by the South African National Biodiversity Institute.  However, early descriptions of the book were uniformly positive, and I have hesitated before to purchase an attractive horticulture book, only to discover that its limited print run has sold out and second hand copies are far beyond my budget.  Thus, when the book finally became available, I searched around for the best price and ordered a copy from a distributor in the United Kingdom.  I was not disappointed.

Considered first as a physical artifact, the book is an impressive specimen.  It is printed on heavy, glossy paper bound together with a satin ribbon bookmark.  The endpapers and tough dust jacket are beautifully decorated with line drawings of amaryllid inflorescences and the dust jacket also has a lovely color illustration of Brunsvigia radulosa.  Weighing nearly three kilograms, the book is almost too heavy to read comfortably unless it is placed on a table, and it would certainly not be a good field guide.  However, its physical presence gives the impression that it will outlive the purchaser.

And the content?  This is the finest botany/horticulture book I have read in a long time.  As most advertisements and descriptions indicate, the book’s main selling point is its botanical illustrations, which represent almost forty-five years of work by Barbara Jeppe and her daughter Leigh Voigt.  The book covers every single species in all of the amaryllid genera found in Southern Africa, a region encompassing both the summer- and winter-rainfall regions of South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, and Botswana.  Each full-color botanical illustration shows the bulb, foliage, flowers, and fruit.  A notation at the bottom of each illustration indicates its scale as a percentage of life-size, making it easy to determine the actual size of the flowers.  In my browsing of the book, I found only a couple of species illustrated with older paintings or lacking an illustration, because no living material was available to the artists.

All species, including those few with no illustration, have a detailed description written by Graham Duncan, the curator of the indigenous bulb collection at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa.  In addition to a physical description, Duncan’s text includes a brief history of the species (including provenance of the illustrated plant), flowering period, distribution and habitat, conservation status, and cultivation notes.  This latter section will probably be of great interest to bulb enthusiasts and gardeners.  If, like me, you sometimes have trouble remembering which parts of South Africa receive winter rainfall and which months in the southern hemisphere correspond to our northern hemisphere growing season, you’ll be pleased to see that the cultivation instructions usually state exactly when a species should be watered in terms of season, not months of the year.

The various genera and species are presented in alphabetical order, making it easy to find a species of interest.  Each genus is introduced with a more general description that includes numerous color photographs, many of them showing plants in habitat. Introductory material at the front of the book includes sections on amaryllid biogeography and survival strategies.  These sections were particularly interesting to me, because I find that much of the fun of growing exotic plants lies in learning about their biology, evolution, and habitat.

The end of the book includes a key to all genera and species, a glossary, and a more detailed cultivation guide split into sections for growers in the northern and southern hemispheres.  The northern hemisphere guide includes helpful instructions for acclimatizing bulbs imported from South Africa, as well as lists of recommended species for cultivation outside.  These lists are, I think, the least useful aspect of the book for growers in North America.  The cultivation guide was clearly written with the United Kingdom in mind, and there is no obvious way to translate the “hardy” and “half-hardy” categories into USDA climate zones.  In some cases, the cultivation guide seems too conservative, stating that Nerine bowdenii is “the only fully hardy summer-rainfall amaryllid” and that Crinum bulbispermum is merely “frost-hardy.”  With these minor quibbles, though, I am still impressed by the cultivation guide and think that its information on propagation, pests and diseases, and potting media will be of great utility to North American growers.

For me, the biggest surprise in this book has been learning just how many absolutely gorgeous amaryllids there are that do not seem to be in cultivation in the United States.  Perhaps the list of seed and bulb suppliers at the end of the book will offer me the opportunity to test those instructions for acclimatizing imports.