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?

Cover boards for wildlife (Six on Saturday #61–December 12, 2020)

Six on Saturday today is another garden project. This one adds wildlife habitat to your garden and provides the opportunity to see animals that are usually hidden from view.

1. Cover boards

coverboard

A cover board is exactly what it sounds like: a wooden board or piece of sheet metal that is placed on the ground to provide habitat for small animals. They’re often used by herpetologists to attract reptiles and amphibians, but they also attract insects, spiders, and small mammals.

This past spring, the kids and I placed three cover boards–two wooden boards and one piece of corrugated metal siding–in likely spots around our property. Over the summer and autumn, we have checked the boards once every two weeks, which we think is a decent compromise between checking so often that animals are frightened away, and checking so infrequently that we miss things.

If you live in a place with venomous snakes, it’s a good idea to use a rake or snake hook to lift cover boards. Pull the board towards you, so that you will have the upright board between you and any disturbed snakes. If you find a small animal, take a few pictures and then carefully lower the cover board again. Gently move the little creature to one side first, and let it crawl back underneath after you have lowered the board. You don’t want to find its squashed corpse the next time you lift the board Wait a reasonable amount of time and then repeat. That’s all there is to it

The rest of my photos today are animals that we found under the boards.

2. Eastern narrowmouth toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis)

narrow-mouth

The first time we looked under the boards, we found a pair of eastern narrowmouth toads. These guys spend most of their lives hidden, and I have only seen a handful in the past twenty years. I previously posted about this species here.

3. Wolf spider (Genus? species?)

wolf-spider
Maybe a Hogna species?

4. Eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus)

worm-snake1

I have written about eastern worm snakes here.

worm-snake2

5. Another worm snake ready to shed its skin

earth-snake1

6. Marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum)

marbled-salamander

See this old post for more about marbled salamanders.

As always, the Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Tiny Dinosaurs (Six on Saturday #60–October 17, 2020)

Pollo and Kylling 2
Kylling and Pollo look for grubs in a rotten log.

For the past two years, Youngest Offspring has been arguing in favor of backyard chickens, and her long campaign has finally been successful. My garden project this summer was building a coop and run next to my greenhouse, and on September 24, three pullets from a local farm moved in.

1. The coop

Coop-front
The chicken “barn quilt” was painted by my wife. Access port for the nest box is visible at right.

Since we have never kept chickens before, it took us a long time to decide exactly what to do about a coop. We considered various prefabricated coops but eventually decided to build our own. I purchased plans for the Basic Coop from TheGardenCoop.com but modified them to make the coop slightly taller and 3′ x 4′ instead of 3′ x 3′. This made the materials somewhat more expensive, but should allow us to keep up to five birds.

Coop-back

2. The run

run

The run is about 10’ x 20’, half covered with transparent corrugated polycarbonate and half open to the elements. I built a rough perch from the trunk of a young black tupelo tree (Nyssa sylvatica) and threw in some rotten logs for scratching and grub hunting purposes.

3. Security

apron
anti-predator apron around the perimeter of the run.

We decided not to allow the chickens free range in the garden, because of the danger from predators. The birds are basically Youngest Offspring’s pets, so we want to protect them as well as we can. Raccoons are probably the biggest threat, but other predators in our area include foxes, coyotes, dogs, cats, skunks, opossums, hawks, and owls. There’s an outside chance of weasels or bobcats, or perhaps a mink following the creek up from the Eno River. Rat snakes probably aren’t a threat to adult chickens, so I’m not worried about excluding them—we’ll just remove any egg raiders we find.

At night, the chickens are confined to the coop, which will hopefully exclude nocturnal predators. For maximum ventilation without sacrificing security, the coop has a ceiling of heavy galvanized hardware cloth topped with corrugated polycarbonate. The large cleanout door and small door connecting to the coop are both secured with swivel hasps. I use carabiners to “lock” the hasps at night, because they’re easier to remove than padlocks but hopefully will be too difficult for dexterous little raccoon paws

The sides of the run are welded wire fence, and the part that doesn’t have a roof is covered with chicken wire to keep out hawks. Around the perimeter, we placed a horizontal apron of the same fencing material. When hidden beneath mulch it will hopefully slow down any dogs or other diurnal predators that try to dig under the fence.

So, fingers crossed. I hope we haven’t set up a buffet with free chicken dinners.

4-6. The girls

Hanchen
Hänchen

Pollo_and_Kylling
Pollo (left) and Kylling

Hähnchen is supposed to be an Ameraucana, but the farm said it is possible she is an “Easter Egger” (Ameraucana hybrid). Pollo is a cuckoo Marans. Kylling is a Red Star. In November they will be joined by a barred Plymouth Rock and an Easter Egger. Youngest Offspring has reserved the names Frango and Kuritsa.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Six on Saturday #58 (July 4, 2020)

Happy Independence Day to all readers from the U.S.A.  As befits the Fourth of July, today is forecast to be hot and humid, with the highest temperatures so far this year.  It seems we have finally left the prolonged period of cool, wet weather and have entered a more typical summer weather pattern with highs in the low to mid 90s (32-35 C) and occasional thunderstorms

1. Sinningia araneosa

Sinningia_areneosa

Several of the Brazilian sinningias have proven winter hardy in my garden, but with only a single plant, I haven’t been willing to test this little beauty.  I currently grow it in a plastic pot, exposed to full sun outdoors in summer and with a dry winter dormancy in the greenhouse.

2. Sinningia ‘Towering Inferno’

Sinningia_Blazing-Inferno

And here is one of the hardy varieties that grow well in the open garden.  Sinningia ‘Towering Inferno’ is a complex hybrid that probably incorporates genes from S. aggregata, S. sulcata, S. tubiflora, and S. warmingii.  Hummingbirds love the flowers, for obvious reasons.

3.  Hemerocallis citrina

IMG_8993

Hemerocallis citrina (syn. H. altissima) is a very tall daylily species, perhaps the tallest, with inflorescences about 6 feet (1.8 m) long.  The flowers open before sunset, are strongly fragrant all evening, and collapse before dawn.  Perhaps it should be called a nightlily?

4.  Hemerocallis ‘Free Wheelin’

IMG_8920

H. ‘Free Wheelin’ is an interesting spider daylily hybrid with enormous flowers, 9-10 inches (~24 cm) wide even with the curled tepals.  I have never seen anything like it before.  My young plant had only one inflorescence this year, so only a single flower at a time.  Hopefully it will be bigger next year.

5.  Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’

IMG_8905

‘Lucifer’ is an absolutely gorgeous plant when in bloom, but think hard about where you want to grow it.  The corms multiply rapidly underground and are almost impossible to remove completely, so once planted in a flower bed, it will be there forever.

6. Kniphofia ‘Lola’ (red hot poker)

Kniphophia_Lola

Kniphofia flowers are more than a little bit garish, but this large form looks pretty good in a “hot colors” bed mixed with other bright red and orange flowers.  In their native South Africa, the large Kniphofia species are pollinated by sunbirds, so it isn’t surprising that in North Carolina they attract hummingbirds.  Some websites indicate that ‘Lola’ is a cultivar of K. uvaria.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Six on Saturday #57 (June 20, 2020)

Is it Saturday again?  Here are six plants that are currently flowering.

1. Amorpha canescens (leadplant)

Amorpha-canescens

This is a plant that rewards close inspection.  Its purple flowers with golden yellow stamens are gorgeous, but tiny.  A. canescens is native to the central United States, from Minnesota and North Dakota to Texas.  I grow it a sunny, dry location near our rosemary bush.

2. Canna ‘Lucifer’

Canna-Lucifer

The somewhat dull orange-red flowers of ‘Lucifer’ can’t hold a candle to Canna ‘Flaming Kabobs’, but ‘Lucifer is probably much better suited to small gardens.  It is a miniature, standing only 3 feet high with inflorescence (90-100 cm), less than half the height of ‘Flaming Kabobs’.  I am growing it in somewhat poor, dry soil, but it has proven to be a tough little plant and has slowly spread into a clump about four feet wide.

3.  Habranthus tubispathus var. texensis (Texas copperlily)

Habranthus -texensis

This is a rather nice weed.  Seed must have drifted from some potted bulbs, and now a little Habranthus is blooming right at the edge of our driveway.  H. tubispathus has a disjunct range in southern South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the gulf coast of the United States.  It seems likely that it was originally native to Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, but was introduced to other areas by early Spanish explorers and settlers.

4. Lonicera sempervirens (coral honeysuckle)–again.

Lonicera-sempervirens

Although some selected cultivars of our native L. sempervirens flower on and off for much of the summer, this wild vine at the edge of my garden usually blooms only in April.  I suspect it has been induced to flower again by the unusually cool and wet weather we have been having.

5. Buddleja davidii (butterfly bush)

Buddleja-davidii

I’m keeping a watchful eye on this plant.  It volunteered in the garden and has the potential to become quite invasive in our climate, but so far I have not found any more seedlings.  I keep it around, despite its large size and ungainly branches, because butterflies adore the flowers.  Some years, it is completely smothered in several species of swallowtail butterflies, but this year there are hardly any around.  I wonder if the wet weather is to blame.

6.  Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Bailmer’ (Endless Summer Hydrangea)

Endless-Summer

I have shown this plant before, but it is blooming particularly well this year.  Gardeners generally think that blue flowers occur when H. macrophylla is grown in acidic soil and pink flowers in neutral or alkaline soil, but the situation is a bit more complex, depending on availability of aluminum ions and the amount of phosphate in the soil.  Having blue and pink flowers on the same plant, and even on the same branches, should probably tell me something about my soil chemistry, but I have no idea what.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six and find links to the blogs of other participants.