Maybe it’s all the green from St. Patrick’s Day yesterday, or maybe I’m just tired of being in the frozen North where green things don’t really show up until mid-April, but today, plants are taking over the blog. Consider this one of those world-building/plotting mash-ups to give you a fresh perspective as you take on your weekend!
Note: this is slightly ironic because, despite two years of teaching basic botany, my personal plant-caring skills are less than awesome. However, I love finding ways to use plants in stories. At least they’ll thrive somewhere!
One of the most obvious ways to use plants is in setting. Whether you’re creating entirely new flora and fauna for a fantasy world or inviting your readers into a new locale on this planet, using details about plants can help set the stage and make your story stand out. Plants can trigger all of the senses, which makes them a great thing for adding sensory detail–even the sound of leaves rustling in the trees or brush crunching underfoot is a great way to anchor your reader into the story. Using a city environment? Unless you’re in a post-apocalyptic, no-green world, plants are sturdy and adaptable enough to grow anywhere.
From special herbs to succulent salads to delicious fruit desserts, there are plenty of ways to use plants in your food descriptions. While it’s easy to dismiss food as an unnecessary part of world-building and plotting, food has actually been used in pivotal ways throughout history. Sea travelers ate oranges to stave off scurvy. The colonists of America would have starved without a friendly Native American teaching them how to grow corn. And then consider the Irish potato famine and the origins of the Dust Bowl–both instances where poor plant farming drastically changed millions of lives.
From love potions to pheromones, plants are a primary culprit in love and romance for many stories. A Midsummer Night’s Dream did this to great effect and humor (and yes, magic was involved as well), and a common trope in science fiction television is for the cast to find themselves on a planet with plants that send out frisky vibes. Supervillain Poison Ivy takes this to another level with her poisonous kisses. Even just using a lush garden as a surrounding or a bouquet of fragrant flowers as a gift can be a great way to add romance. And if that bouquet of roses is dipped in blood, suddenly you’ve gone from romance to horror, which can be a fun twist!
From poisonous to people eating, plants can make the best baddies. Of course, someone using a plant-based poison to kill someone else else is a time-honored plot twist–and it helps that so many plants are both healing and poisonous. Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors has a taste for human flesh that makes for great tension. M. Night Shymalan’s The Happening has plants releasing spores to take out humans. In fact, plants run amok is a common theme in horror and is an aspect of the natural horror subgenre.
From athelas in The Lord of the Rings to herbology classes in the Harry Potter books, the plants that can kill you can also make you stronger. Plants are used so much for medicinal purposes, especially in mythological and medieval story worlds, that it would almost be a cliche if it weren’t so accurate. However, the degree to which plants are used as medicine is also an easy indicator for the general anthropological period of your story, as in modern days over-the-counter medicines and chemical remedies are more common, and in science fiction stories the usage of actual leaves and roots in home-grown remedies can be viewed as suspicious. In addition, the way characters respond to the usage of plants in medicine can be a way to reveal aspects of their personality.
What about you, readers and #plothoppers? How do you use plants in your stories? What other ways have you seen plants used?