5 Tips for Writing About Plants
Many of the books and stories I love reading take place in rural or wild settings. I especially enjoy lush descriptions of natural beauty and stories about healers, witches, and wise women. Unfortunately for me, many people who write these stories aren't actually familiar with plants at all, and their texts are riddled with botanical misinformation that breaks the story's spell and makes me irritable. We live in a world where information about plants is widely available, and a few minutes on line or at the library could prevent glaring errors that distract from an otherwise beautifully told tale.
So today I'm going to share some very basic plant information for fiction writers.
1. Plants have very specific needs. Some plants like to grow in shade. Others need full sun. Some like to live in wet places, some in dry. For example: I've read novels (very good novels, I might add) that feature scenes in which the heroine gathers lavender in the forest. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean. It likes full sun and loose, well drained soil. It might survive for a little while in the woods, but it would become straggly and spindly and would be unlikely to bloom.
2. Every plant blooms at a specific time of year. Bloom time depends on temperature, the amount of rainfall, and a number of other conditions. It may vary by several weeks in either direction depending on the weather, elevation, etc., but you can at least be pretty sure that violets will bloom in early spring, and lavender will bloom on or around midsummer (unless it's Spanish lavender, which can start blooming earlier and continue blooming later). So, when your heroine goes into the forest to collect lavender blossoms, she can't gather them at the same time as she gathers violets (which you actually CAN find in the forest, by the way).
3. Herbs, like most pharmaceuticals, usually require multiple doses before achieving a desired healing effect. When you have Strep Throat, and you go to the doctor for antibiotics, do you take only one dose and then all of your symptoms disappear and you are well again? Usually no: you take several doses, and recovery is gradual. It's the same with plants. While some herbs are very powerful and you'll notice a difference immediately (such as the quick relief of applying plantain to a bee sting), no herb is going to immediately make anyone 100% well. It takes time. So remember when you're deciding how many days it takes to get to the frozen mountaintop swamps to gather rosemary, you need a couple more days than you think you need--because once your heroine returns, it will take a while for the plant to do its thing. (Please note: I can't speak to how applicable this is to poisons and antidotes. I haven't studied that area of herbalism at all. Mostly because I imagine it involves a lot of spectacular vomiting. But I know people who HAVE studied this subject, and if I wanted to write about it, I would contact them for help getting my facts straight.)
4. Strong medicinal herbs often taste terrible. So, if you want to put someone to sleep by giving her valerian, the wine you put it in will NOT taste strangely sweet (a description I read in another otherwise wonderful novel). It will taste like someone with really poor hygiene left their dirty socks in the wine barrel, or maybe their whole nasty fungus-covered foot. Of course, not all herbs taste bad. Some of them are delicious. Elderberries, rosehips, rose petals, violet flowers, and many more are delicious. But if it's a root, there's a good chance it tastes like dirt. If it's a toxic plant, it will probably taste extremely bitter or otherwise unpleasant. Of course there are exceptions. You will find them if you do your research.
5. If you just can't face the thought of researching plants, it's okay. You have two options available to you. One, don't write about specific plants, and don't name names. You can still talk about lush greenery and fields of flowers in general terms. Or, if you're writing fantasy - especially fantasy set in a fictional world - you can just make up new plants. It's a great way to exercise your imagination, and it's fun for the reader in the same way reading about mythical creatures is fun. Either option eliminates the risk of pulling the reader out of the story to roll their eyes and insult your lack of knowledge while making another cup of herbal tea.
Obviously all these statements are generalizations. When it comes to plants, there are exceptions and deviations all over the place. Because plants, like people, are individuals.
Do you need information about plants for your story or novel? Contact us and we'll try to help.
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