A Few Things Writers Need To Know About Plants & Herbs

This page contains information that's potentially useful writers in a number of ways - such as to give worldbuilders some things to consider and incorporate when designing their own fictional herbs and plants, to clear up some misconceptions that many people have about real ones, and to point out a few things that could add some drama or be spun into a plot. So whatever you're trying to do, there might be something useful for you here!

Why different plants look the way they do. A plant's appearance is shaped by the environs it developed in and the pressures it faced. For example, plants that live in bright light often have light-colored leaves to reflect unneeded sunlight while plants that live in shadier areas have darker leaves to absorb as much light as they can get. Plants in dry areas tend to have smaller, thinner leaves to help reduce water loss, while plants in moist areas often have larger leaves. Plants adapted to desert environments are often much smaller than those adapted for tropical environments. Many plants develop thorns to keep predators from munching them with wild abandon. This site has an overview of how plants can be adapted to different environments, which can be very useful if you're trying to design your own fictional plants. Likewise, you might also ask yourself what type of environment you're designing for, then do some general research into what real-life plants that live in similar environments look like.

The difference between annuals, biennials, and perennials. An annual plant does not live beyond a single year - it grows, flowers, seeds, and dies within a matter of several months. Biennials spend one year growing, then flower and seed the next year, and then die. Perennials live longer than two years. Some plants, such as tomatoes, are actually perennials in their native environments but are grown as annuals elsewhere. (Tomatoes will live indefinitely in a warm environment, but cannot tolerate frost or cold winters.)

That flowers and fruits typically have limited and short seasons. In some works of fiction, you'll find characters picking flowers or harvesting fruits at any time of the year. However, the reality is that most plants have a season for flowering or bearing ripe fruit that will only last a few days to a few weeks. Apple trees, for example, bloom in early spring and spend the spring and summer developing their fruits. Depending on the species, the fruits will typically be ripe come late summer to early autumn. If the fruits are not picked, they'll drop from the tree in a few weeks. Likewise, wild roses will typically bloom for a few weeks, then stop and develop their fruit (rose hips) which will be mature later. This means that if your characters are picking apples or admiring wild roses just any time of the year, something's definitely wrong.

There are a few exceptions; some tomato varieties, for example, will set flowers and fruit indefinitely once they begin. Domesticated roses might flower until cold weather sets in. But plants like these are the exception rather than the rule (and are usually highly domesticated), so make sure you check and make sure that the fruit or flower you're writing about is in fact in season if you're not sure already.

That plants have many different means of reproduction. Some plants are pollinated by the wind (and do not usually have showy flowers) while others rely on insects and other small animals (and often have showy flowers to attract them). Some plant species produce both pollen and ova; some plant species only produce one or the other. Some plants reproduce by growing out roots or vines away from the original plant that develops into a new plant - which they may or may not do in addition to producing seeds. Ferns reproduce via spore-producing fronds. If you're looking to design your own fictional plants, you might take a look into the various ways plants reproduce for inspiration.

That different plants start growing at different times of the year. Not every plant begins its growth cycle in spring; some begin in summer or even in the autumn. By having different growth and reproduction schedules, plants can avoid competing with each other.

That introducing new plants into an area can cause a lot of trouble. Plants that are introduced to a new area can potentially become invasive, pushing out native species and disrupting local ecosystems. There's a number of ways that plants get brought into a new area: they might be introduced by people who plant them for decoration, food, or other use; or they might end up accidentally being carried in with other things (EG, other seeds).

That most of the food plants you're used to have been domesticated. Anyone trying to forage for wild bounty isn't too likely to come across anything that looks like what you'd find in a supermarket. The fruits and vegetables you're used to eating have been selectively bred for a variety of traits, including larger size, smaller seeds, fewer thorns, and better taste. Wild bananas and maize are good examples of this.

That plants have all kinds of ways to protect themselves. You already know about thorns, which discourage predators from eating them. And of course, many plants produce toxins and many just taste terrible. But many plants actually biochemically communicate with others so that they can prepare their natural defenses (think an immune system response) against certain threats.

That anyone trying to grow or forage for food can expect bugs. Anything that's tasty and nutritious to you is tasty and nutritious to a bug. Someone harvesting wild greens for consumption, for example, can expect to have to chow down on at least a few leaves that the bugs have nibbled on first. Fruits plucked from the wild might have been nibbled on already, or might even have insects (usually larvae) of some kind burrowed inside of them. Edible plants that one attempts to grow are definitely going to attract hungry bugs, and those are going to have to be contended with one way or another to prevent ruination of the crop - whether through poisons, traps, or barriers.

That over-harvesting a wild plant can endanger it or even drive it to extinction. It's happened before - for example, one herb that ancient Romans used for birth control was driven to extinction by over-harvest. Over-harvest is still a serious problem today, perpetrated both by natural health companies and by private foragers. In order to keep a population safe and healthy, care must be taken that it's harvested sustainably.

That "herbal" does not mean "safe." Many people are under the impression that if a remedy is "herbal," then it's completely safe. In reality, many medicinal plants are only safe in controlled quantities. Should these quantities be exceeded, illness, injury, or even death can be a very real possibility. Furthermore, it's also possible for herbal supplements to interact with conventional drugs and cause problems. Also worth noting is that many herbal supplements have turned out to be contaminated and in many cases commercial herbal supplements contain little, if any of the herbs they're supposed to contain.

That cooking plant foods is sometimes a necessity. Some people have a romantic notion that plants are the most nutritious in their natural states and that cooking is the worst thing anyone can ever do to them. In reality, cooking plants is sometimes the only way to remove dangerous toxins from them. Kidney beans and lima beans are good examples of this.

Also worth noting is that while cooking can destroy some nutrients, research shows that it can actually increase the amount of others. Plus, it makes them easier to digest - which can be pretty crucial for a sick person who doesn't have a lot of energy to spare on digestion.

That some plants are only safe to eat at certain times. Some plants are only safe to eat when young, as they'll take on dangerous toxins as they mature. Some fruits (such as the lychee) are toxic before they ripen.

That dangerous lookalikes are out there. Sometimes a very toxic plant looks very much like a safe one, so it's easy for relatively inexperienced foragers to accidentally poison themselves. This page has some examples.

That sometimes, only parts of the plant are safe to eat. Rhubarb is a good example - the leaf stems are perfectly safe and tasty, but the actual leaves themselves contain high amounts of oxalic acid, which can cause illness if consumed in large quantities. Likewise, the flesh of fruits like apricots, peaches, and cherries are safe enough, but the pits contain hydrogen cyanide, which can be dangerous.

(But on this note, it's important to remember that the dose makes the poison: many edible plants contain certain amounts chemicals that would be dangerous in larger quantities but can be handled safely in small amounts. So anyone who claims that some popular vegetable item is actually harmful and toxic because of some toxic substance it contains should be taken with a grain of salt.)

That some plants commonly believed to be toxic actually aren't. For example, it's often believed that the tops of carrots are toxic, but it isn't actually so. Likewise, black nightshade (a different plant from deadly nightshade) bears fruit that is eaten by many. So before using some plant or other as a deadly poison in your stories, you might want to double-check and make sure you've got your facts right!

That mushrooms aren't plants. They're fungi, and they're actually more closely related to the animal kingdom than to the plant kingdom.

That vines are not as useful as some think they are. You often see characters using vines as if they're interchangeable with ropes, but they are not. Vines are still plant stems, which means that they are still prone to breaking when bent too far - just try actually tying a vine the same way you'd tie a rope, and you can be guaranteed that it will snap. Also, vines aren't actually good for swinging on.

You might also like:

Random Plant Generator
Plant, Herb, & Flower Name Generator

Points To Remember When Designing SF Creatures & Species
Tips to Create Better & More Believable Fantasy & Science Fiction Species
Things Writers Should Know About Animal Behavior

Points To Remember When Worldbuilding
Country & Culture Development Questions

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