1. Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us.

The dangers of real-world plants

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Tom, Mar 14, 2016.

  1. Tom

    Tom Istar

    I decided to put this in a thread after seeing a post on tumblr that roused my interest. Basically, the OP of this post was complaining about authors using made-up plants in their writing where a real plant would work just as well. Someone replied saying that the reason why authors do this is to protect their audience. If you include real plants in your writing, there's a possibility readers will try to find/use the plants too. If they aren't familiar with foraging, or are young, they may misidentify plants and end up with something harmful or even deadly.

    I thought this was an interesting and important point. I myself am familiar with myriads of wild plants and am knowledgeable about safe foraging, but my readers might not be. What do you guys think? Do you use real or made up plants, and do you think this is a valid concern?
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2016
    valiant12 likes this.
  2. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    Hello Tom.

    I have never used fictional plants in my stories, except for the mysterious Whakflower that my character Aycell likes to smoke at the parties. However, I do believe that creating Fantasy plants is better than using real ones in order to protect the readers and also other people.

    If your story features some of the very dangerous plants that exist in our world, there is a possibility that somebody out there would get ideas from what your characters do and try to do something with the plants in question. There are many people searching for information like that in order to do something bad, so... better safe than sorry.

    After all, creating our own Fantasy plants can be very fun and it adds depth to our worlds.
    Tom likes this.
  3. valiant12

    valiant12 Sage

    I use both real and fictional plants.

    Can you please share a link to this post ?

    Somebody can get ideas from a story featuring knife fights and\or firearms.
    Tom likes this.
  4. Tom

    Tom Istar

    Sure! Whew, took me a while to find it. Tumblr has the worst tagging system ever. Had to google it.

    Fantasy Pet Peeve #347 + responses

    EDIT: I also reblogged it to my tumblr because the formatting was giving me a headache.

    (Warning--Swearing in both links)

    However, plants are a more accessible resource than most knives and firearms. Plus you don't have to have bad intentions to use the wrong plants. A simple misidentification, for example, can mean the difference between eating Queen Anne's Lace (which is a harmless member of the carrot family) and its deadly lookalike, poison hemlock. Additionally, some plants are edible at certain points in their life cycle, but poisonous in others (mayapples, for example). There are a thousand ways to slip up while foraging for wild plants.

    I understand that completely reinventing vegetation in a fantasy world is coming close to calling a rabbit a smerp, but I think it's worth it.

    Something I've always done to circumvent this problem is to take real plants and rename them, and only include a brief description of their appearance so they can't be identified using it. In this way I've also solved another problem I've encountered during worldbuilding: using the English names for things. This is especially frustrating when dealing with plants. Many plants are named for their features, often in Old/Middle English. If your world doesn't have monks, for instance, how are you going to explain the presence of a plant called monkshood? Augh, English plant names are ridiculous. They give me hives.
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2016
  5. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

    I doubt anyone is going to use a fantasy book as a guide for wild foraging. Surely people have enough common sense to do their own research. I can understand using fake plants for things like drugs, plot plants (like the magical thorns guarding Sleeping Beauty's castle) and so on, but swapping out real plants for fake ones because you're worried someone's going to use your novel as a plant guide in the woods seems a bit silly to me. And when are you going to write about something in sufficient detail to enable anyone to even try? Any prose with sufficient detail about a plant to be close to a foraging guide is going to seriously distrupt the flow.
    TheKillerBs likes this.
  6. Tom

    Tom Istar

    When I wrote this thread, I guess I forgot to make it clear that I was mainly talking about young readers. The post I linked to seems to be talking about mainly YA fantasy as well. In the case of kids, they may not consider foraging for plants they read about in a book a bad idea. Adults do because of greater experience.

    When my sister was 12, she read a book by Jane Yolen, Snow in Summer, in which the main character forages and eats wild ramps (also called wild leeks). The very next day she went down into the woods and came back with a handful of wild leeks. Even though they're easily identifiable and don't resemble anything poisonous, I flipped out. We checked and double-checked them before I even thought about letting her cook them.

    My sister wasn't being careless. She just thought it would be fun to look for and eat the same plants someone she read about did. Thank god Jane Yolen is meticulous with her research, though, or that could have turned sticky. (Btw, the longest description of wild leeks I could find in the book is that they have long, bright green leaves and grow in patches in damp spots in the woods. That's all my sister needed to find them.)

    I'd rather err on the side of caution.

    Like I said, you don't need a long description. Field guide descriptions generally aren't very long or intricate. In one of my WIPs, I describe the arrowhead plant in about two sentences. Yarrow in one. Silverwort in two. (All under different names, as per my usual plan of attack.)

    Plus, when a character is foraging, you are going to be spending at least some time describing the plants they're finding, because the foraging is the action you're focusing on in the scene. Most writers won't just write "she found the plant she needed", they're probably phrase it more like, "a flash of purple blossoms told her she'd found what she was looking for. After studying the hairy oval leaves to make sure she had it right, she dug the plant up".
  7. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    >Surely people have enough common sense to do their own research.

    One would think.

    OTOH, if I kept out every item or idea that might lead some simple soul to destruction, I'd be severely limited in my writing. In the immortal words of Don Marquis, an idea is not responsible for the people who believe in it.

    Free plug: Don Marquis is worth reading, or quoting, every day of the week. (take it away, mehitabel...)
  8. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    Since medicine in the past was largely plant-based, I use plant-based medicine in my stories. I mean, what else is there, really, when you don't have a sound foundation for chemistry and magic is limited? I use some common plants like thyme and chives when I talk about meals, of course, and mugwort and borage when I talk about common medicines. I have a character brush her teeth with a wild sage leaf when they're camping, and I use common historical applications for plants, like to relieve pain or relax the person using it (like in a tea, with chamomile, for example). But when I need something else, like a potent drug for something really specific, I tend to make it up.

    I do that because one, I don't want anyone to call me out for research reasons, because I'm about as well-read regarding ancient remedies and the medicinal and magical use of plants as anyone I know, and two, because I don't want to use a fictional story to "educate" anyone on how to create any of the effects I'm trying to, whether they're truly real or not.

    I have a character who uses plants that have toxic properties to poison her victims just enough to say, cause them to pass out or to overcome their natural inhibitions. I don't want to somehow give anyone ideas of how they can do that with real-world substances that should only be used by professional physicians or herbalists. I mean, there are plenty of common plants that anyone has access to that can kill. Many can be found in our suburban yards or any local nursery--no foraging required! Also, I have in my stories a few plants that can alter minds in pretty intense ways, and while plants with similar properties exist in the real world, I'd just feel more comfortable if my stories not be connected to any real-world plant/ fungus that some idiot decided to try for recreational reasons, and wound up ill from...or dead. Or whatever. I'm not sure it wold be a liability issue, but on the other hand, why even risk it? I don't have to mention ergot, digitalis, or datura, when I can just make up some innocuous-sounding plant name that no one would ever pursue with research and try to use for real.

    The thing is, I was really interested in plants and their properties as a teenager, and that's really stuck with me as an adult. I used a wide variety of plants and their oils when I made soap. I've always grown herbs for my kitchen, and though I don't make them myself, I have friends who make home remedies from some pretty potent stuff that could be really unsafe if used incorrectly. So, I guess it's just in my nature to be cautious because though I'm only writing fiction, I've been involved in herbalism for many years, where I gifted products or sold them at craft fairs, and I was ultimately responsible for ensuring my products were safe, and telling people what was in them so my consumers could be informed and make good decisions for themselves.

    I look at it like this: If I'm writing a fictional story about a woman who poisons her husband, I have two options. I can either explicitly say that she switched out the onion in his dinner for daffodil bulbs, so that if anyone ever questioned her it would legitimately look like an accident, or I could instead show the same event but call them something unfamiliar. I'd feel really bad if someone (especially someone young, since I was about 15 when I learned you can legitimately kill someone with daffodil bulbs) actually did the unthinkable and used my research to take a life. The two portrayals (to my mind) serve two very different purposes. In the first example, I'd say it's a rawer story, one that would hinge on authenticity as its connection to the reader, perhaps to create an eeriness or profoundness in its simplicity (as in, how common deadly poisons are, in almost every house's garden) and in the second example, where i make up a fake name for the common plant, I'd say the focus would inherently be more on the story and the plot of what's happening.

    I hope that makes sense. I suppose what I mean is that if you write a fictional story and throw in some plants with really toxic effects or healing properties, or whatever, there's nothing wrong with renaming things if the main focus is on what's happening, rather than on the plants themselves. It wouldn't necessarily make sense for you to feel OBLIGATED to use familiar names of real-world plants, because that's not the "point" of the story. However, if the point of the story is other than that above, then it might make more sense to be very specific. Hauntingly specific, even, showing a deeper intention by naming the real-world plant and its effects, and so on, for drama, or authenticity.
    Tom and TheKillerBs like this.
  9. Chessie

    Chessie Guest

    I use real world plants and medicines made from them in my stories. Because we live in a boreal forest, I have a thick book of herbs from the area that I use for reference---> The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food & Medicine Plants Of The North. Amazing book btw. So if readers get curious I suppose they could look it up but...why on Earth would they want to do that? Just enjoy the story. I don't understand why anyone would have a problem with using real plants in FICTION stories. *shrugs*
    arboriad and Tom like this.
  10. Tom

    Tom Istar

    Okay, I NEED that book. My setting is boreal too, based on the Adirondack Mountains, and I've been looking for a boreal plant guide forever.
    arboriad likes this.
  11. NerdyCavegirl

    NerdyCavegirl Sage

    If deadly plants are more accessible than knives, then do you have a kitchen? If so, do you cut your food with spoons? I may be a bit biased, but I see dozens of ads every day promoting the safety and usefulness of toxic manmade chemicals, most of which parents expose their children to without a second of their own research. Many plants may be deadly, but many are also much safer and more effective than what the whitecoats whip up, and plant toxins as well as snake venom are still more easily purged from the body. Most synthetic toxins accumulate in the body even if they seem harmless at first. I'd rather plant the seed of a better alternative, and if a reader is bright enough to do their own research and learn something good, that's one human adding intelligence and health to the gene pool. If someone blindly follows my advice and fails as a result, there's still 7.5 billion other sheeple out there who will probably die blindly following someone else. I'm sure others disagree with me.
  12. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    My point is that if your book provides plenty of information about lethal plants it could be a danger, not only for the readers of your stories but for other people as well. There are many unstable individuals out there looking for information about how to murder a potential victim or several victims, you know.

    They would love to find detailed information about common and easily accessible plants that would do the dirty work for them, and if your book assists them... How would you feel?

    Imagine the news: An entire family was found dead in their bedrooms two weeks ago. The autopsies found a high concentration of (not going to mention it here), which is easily obtained from a plant that is not that difficult to find. After police caught the killer, it was discovered that he got the idea from the book (insert the name of your book here).

    CaveGirl: I think that you are underestimating the immense and terrifying power of many plant and mushroom poisons. Actually the most powerful poisons in this planet come from nature instead of labs, and getting your hands on them is not that difficult if you know where to look and how to obtain the stuff.

    There are natural poisons that scare me even more than any synthetic Nerve Agent.
  13. valiant12

    valiant12 Sage

    There is plenty of information about plants in wikipedia. A lot of things can inspire crazy people - 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Inspired Chicago Student's Sexual Assault
  14. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    It's true that they could find the deadly information somewhere else.

    What I am saying is that a potential murderer could get not only the information, but also the inspiration from a Fantasy book in which dangerous plants from the real world are put to a deadly use. They could get the knowledge from some technical book at their local library, or from somewhere in the Internet... but it could happen thanks to what you wrote, as well.

    I doubt any of us would be happy if something like that happened thanks to our creations, so that's why I personally prefer to feature Fantasy plants in my settings and stories.

    Plant and mushroom poisons can be attractive to killers because of the often horrific deaths that they inflict on people.
  15. I use made up plants, mostly because I just suck at botany. It's easier for me to make up my own plants than having to keep track of various real world vegetation.
  16. Terry Greer

    Terry Greer Sage

    If you're story is set in the real world then then i'd suggest that plants have many names in many countries.
    I often have a plant in mind when I'm writing, but don't always call it by it's english name. After all 90+% of the worlds population probably don't either, and plant use depends on the biome the plant comes from.
    Not everywhere is temperate eurasian.

    There's also consideration for plants that need to have effects that aren't mirrored in the real world - they can't possibly have real names can they - especially if the world is a fantasy one.
  17. Chwedleuwre

    Chwedleuwre Acolyte

    Wow! I hadn't thought of the dangers of using real plant names. I'm an amateur herbalist. I grow, dry, tincture, etc. my own plants for a variety of uses. I also do a bit of foraging. My work-in-progress features a pagan priestess who uses herbs; she will have unpleasant experiences with some poisonous ones. Now I will probably opt for actual plant names for the medicinal and spiritual ones, but may not mention the name of the dangerous ones - merely a vague reference or description rather than being specific. Thanks for the thread.
  18. ascanius

    ascanius Inkling

    I really don't understand why this is even an issue , unless your worried about your book becoming the next catcher in the rye. You do realize a quick Google search is going to give a person detailed results. Hell, if they spend an extra 5 min they can learn how to make high order explosives from home. There is nothing you write about that a person cannot find online, detailed and extensive. Point is if a reader already has that in their head reading about it in your book isn't going to change their success.
  19. Laurence

    Laurence Inkling

    I have to agree with this. Also, people (children included) hear about murders every day. If someone reads about one more in your book and thinks "Oh, nice technique - I'll do the exact same", then you should accept no more blame than most journalists or screenwriters.

    There should be no taboos in writing other than wilfully inciting hatred in my opinion.
  20. Entrisen

    Entrisen Dreamer

    I don't know, I always thought the idea of using cannabis in a fantasy setting as a casual recreational drug was an interesting idea. I mean, if there is corn that people eat in the story, if there are horses, cows, dogs, why would cannabis just not exist? In another world, I highly doubt it would be illegal like our worlds, it would probably be highly looked upon

Share This Page