Know Your Plants!

gorse eradication

Handling gorse may require heavy equipment (and it’s listed as a Weed of National Significance in Australia): Gorse management by the Victorian Gorse Task Force, http://www.vicgorsetaskforce.com.au.

Read-aloud time has always been crucial to surviving long trips in my family…along with hiking breaks every hour and a half, not to mention trips to the rest area. The other day, I was the designated reader and the whole family howled when I started a new chapter with the hero “lying motionless in a gorse bush.” Ouch! There’s no way you can lie motionless in gorse. It’s covered in prickers that act more like razor blades than thorns. I learned that the hard way years back, when we visited Oregon’s South Coast, where gorse has invaded many a state park. Native to the Iberian peninsula, Western Europe, and North Africa, the 20 species in the gorse (Ulex) family vary in height from foot-high dwarf furze (found on heaths in Great Britain) to ten feet high (as on the South Coast). On one hike, I thought I’d managed to avoid a slashing by staying in the middle of the trail through a gorse tunnel (pity the folks who cut through it!), but no! My sandal-clad foot recoiled from contact with a shoot emerging in the center of the trail.

Doubtless the author who’d situated his character in a gorse bush to spy had assumed the bush was an innocent inhabitant of the moors, not a bit player in a slasher film, but painful experience taught me differently. The moment reminded me of other passages I’d read in books where the writer hadn’t researched the plants that appeared in their stories, either as minor characters or as important plot points, such as ingredients in a healing potion or a poison. To paraphrase Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, “I’m a doctor, not a botanist,” but I’ve studied botanical medicine and local edible plants. You never know when a reader who picks up your book(s) might have a similar background.

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Medicinal plant or alien being? Taster beware!

So here’s my distilled (or infused, or decocted) wisdom on using plants in your stories. If you’re a botanist, herbalist, or other plant wisdom-keeper, please feel free to share your comments and corrections. Also, please note that the information contained herein is meant to be tips for writing about herbs, not using them, and especially not to diagnose or treat any medical condition(s). To learn more about real-world uses of medicinal substances to treat your own ailments, please talk with your healthcare provider.

A tired old trope in fantasy fiction is the story that opens with a character picking medicinal herbs on her way back to her cottage. But what does this activity, and its associated knowledge base, entail? In preindustrial times, learning how to identify and use plants for food and medicine wasn’t necessarily the exclusive province of professional healers. Most everyone taught their children how to find and use plants to treat everyday ailments and injuries, with the more dangerous plants and rarer conditions being the province of the trained healer. Has your character received special training as an herbalist, surgeon, or battlefield medic? Or are they an ordinary rural village dweller who’s wood-wise? The latter might be most familiar with the nutritive class of medicinal plants, which are used as often for food as for medicine, have a gentle effect on mild ailments or injuries, and the recipient would grow tired of eating them long before they reached a toxic dose. Many of these beneficial plants are hardy and grow in abundance–i.e., they’re weeds. Some real-world examples include dandelions, burdock, chickweed, plantain, nettles, and mullein. Your character can find them easily on a walk just outside the village; they might even battle them as invaders in the vegetable garden, and thus weeding does double duty as harvesting.

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These tomatoes may look wacky, but they’re harmless (and delicious).

Although these everyday plant medicines are usually mild in their actions, it’s still important to keep in mind that anything that heals can also injure or kill. It’s a common misconception that botanical medicine is harmless because it’s natural. Remember, though, that a substance can’t be both effective and harmless. If it works, it also has the potential to hurt somebody if they take too much, use it improperly, and/or are allergic to it. People’s tolerance to different substances varies greatly, which explains why some adults need a child’s dose of certain medications, while others might need enough to treat a horse. (Lots of possibilities for conflict in a novel abound here!)

On the other hand, toxic botanicals are medicinal plants that require knowledge and care to prescribe correctly. If taken in too big a dose (and there might be a narrow therapeutic window between treatment and toxicity), they can cause injury or death, and your characters won’t want to use them unless they have the condition(s) for which these plants are indicated. Naturally, this allows for potential drama, but it still needs to be realistic, well-informed drama. Some parts of the plant may be innocuous, while others are poisonous. Look-alike plants (and fungi) pose a different danger: one species is curative, while another that can “pass” for the helpful plant is either harmful or doesn’t do anything medicinally. And here’s something weird: some plants aren’t poisonous in themselves, but they grow in proximity to poisonous plants and absorb their dangerous compounds, for example, through the water when they grow together in marshes, and thus they become poisonous by contagion, as it were.

Some plants aren’t poisonous; they’re just darn unpleasant. It’s helpful to learn about their irritating qualities if you want to use them as plot points: plants with thorns or spikes, plants with oils that irritate the skin, and even plants that grow so densely that it takes a half-hour to bash your way through a half-mile thicket. (The shrubs growing around streams are often like this, which is one reason it’s harder to bushwhack along a stream bed than you might think. Following the watercourse isn’t always the best way to stay oriented.)

I recommend buying or borrowing plant-identification books for bioregions similar to the locations in which you’ll be setting your story: high desert, temperate rainforest, alpine area, etc. Even if you’re not writing alternative history about actual places, taking time to learn about regions with a similar ecology, geology, and plant life to your fantasy setting will make your descriptions all the more vivid, realistic, and in-depth. I suggest familiarizing yourself with the major plant families in these areas, along with their traditional uses and as much chemistry as you can stand. Although the plants with which you’re populating your imaginary realms may have fanciful names and features not found on Earth, learning some botany basics will make your creations seem plausible–and you’ll probably learn something nifty for a plot twist.

Some reference guides I use include Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants by Scott Kloos, and Pacific Northwest Foraging by Douglas Deur. If you’d like to include fungi, check out David Arora’s comprehensive guide, Mushrooms Demystified and Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms by Paul Stamets. For inspiration for herbalist characters (on everything from the nuts-and-bolts of how they prepare their medicines to philosophical observations about human connections to the natural world), I recommend Healing Wise by Susun Weed and The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook by James Green. I also love Robin Wall Kimmerer’s books, Gathering Moss and Braiding Sweetgrass. Dr. Kimmerer is a professor of environmental biology, and member of the Citizen Potawotami Nation, and her beautifully written books combine scientific/biomedical and Indigenous ways of knowing in an inspiring, informative way.

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Luthien shows off a collection of king boletes (Boleta edulis) growing in the forest we steward.

Practical experience is the optimal way to conduct your research (just don’t nibble on any plant that you can’t identify!) Thus, my most important suggestion is to get outside and spend time with plants, accompanied by a knowledgeable guide (a person, book, or both). This will give you a truly holistic experience of the environments where plants grow, how they respond to that environment, and any plant “personality” characteristics that you’d only pick up through walking, or sitting, among them.

I hope this introduction inspires you to include the plant kingdom in your fictional worlds–and to let sleeping gorse lie (without lying in it yourself).

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Luthien with a Western trillium (Trillium ovatum) left behind by a trail maintenance crew in Forest Park, Portland, OR.

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