Plants in science fiction and fantasy

By Lilian Halstead

When it comes to plants in real life, many people seem to think that because they don’t move, they can’t be very interesting. This is hardly the case in science fiction, where plants (and plant-animal hybrids) are much more active, dangerous things. If you think of plants in science fiction the thing you are mostly likely to come up with first would be the triffids, which first appear in The Day of the Triffids. These intelligent flowering plants originally kept for their oil escape and take over, killing with a venomous sting and wondering around on three stumpy legs. Another well known dangerous plant is Audrey II from the Little Shop of Horrors, which although it remains rooted in place manages to persuade Seymour to bring it the flesh it needs to grow.

These man eaters are by no means the first though— there is a long history of claims of trees that eat people during the exploration of Africa by the Europeans, although they tended to be depicted as masses of tentacle vines which would lash out and grab the unwary, much like the bloodoak and tarryvine in the Edge Chronicles. Some aspects of their design are echoed in the more benign whomping willow in Harry Potter, which is more grumpy than hungry. Many of the plants in the Harry Potter books are drawn from folklore: the devil’s snare was a bloodsucking vine believed to grow in central America, while the mandrake is a real plant which has fleshy roots that was said to scream to kill those who uprooted it.

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Some Arthurian legends say Merlin was turned into an Oak tree by Niviane
(Credit Rob Young)

Another common theme is for plants to resemble people. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers people are gradually replaced by replicas grown in pods. But others are more friendly, one of the main characters in Farscape is a humanoid plant, although it’s not possible to tell from looking at her. Ents are more typically what you’d expect from plant people, and the Cactacae in the world of Bas-Lag are also more plantlike, having wooden bones and being covered in spines. In mythology there were the dryads, tree spirits in humanoid form, although in myths people also had a habit of turning into trees. In some versions of the Arthurian legends Merlin suffers this fate, doomed to live as an oak by the actions of Niviane.

As well as plant people, plant-animal hybrids tend to spring up all over the place. The Sarlacc from Star Wars is one of these, some expanded universe depictions describe it as having roots as well as tentacles and teeth. The best hybrid though has to be the vegetable lamb of Tartary, which is exactly what it sounds like—a plant shaped like a sheep attached to the ground by an umbilical cord-like stalk.

Despite all these plant monsters and hybrids, the most common use of plants is as a MacGuffin: they are variously able to cure diseases, kill the invincible monsters, lift curses and even, in some folk tales, open locked doors. So while animals may get most of the glory in most of science fiction and fantasy, there is also no shortage of plants.

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