Every Thursday, Nathan at Fantasy Review Barn leads a group of fellow bloggers on “Tough Travels”, a trip through the tropes that populate the fantasy and sci-fi world, using Diane Wynne Jones’ hilarious The Tough Guide to Fantasyland as a guide.
This week’s subject is “Unique Flora”:
I had a lot of fun this week. I just kept coming up with oddball examples that I just had to include. But before we dive into the literary examples, here’s a musical number about a terrifying poisonous weed. Yes, that’s Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins, in Genesis, circa 1972 singing “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”. The Giant Hogweed may sound like some sort of fantastic flora, especially from Peter Gabriel’s dramatic vocals, but this is a real plant that is a nuisance throughout England and the Eastern United States.
Belgarion was just coming into his powers when he created this flower for his cousin Adara. Physically he didn’t do a particularly good job — the flower is described as lopsided and frail, and after creating the flower he left it forgotten on a hillside. But the small flower spread, and was rediscovered as a field of blooms a year later by Ce’Nedra. And in the Malloreon we find out that the humble flower is actually a plot device universal restorative, able to stop the damage from poison and cure any ailment.
The Lady is the world tree in Cato’s steampunk fantasy, inspired by the Super NES game, Secret of Mana. Apprentice medician Octavia Leander has an unusually powerful connection with The Lady, which allows her to perform miraculous healing magic without much effort. While traveling to serve a small Caskentian town decimated by plague during the country’s endless war with the Wasters, Leander is swept into a conspiracy to control the power of the Lady and tilt the tide of war towards the Wasters. And judging by the cover of the upcoming sequel The Clockwork Crown, the Lady should play an even bigger part in the new novel as well.
Triffids — Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
“…And I really got hot when I saw Janet Scott/fight a Triffid that spits poison and kills”. Best known from the theme song to Rocky Horror Picture Show and the b-movie that inspired it, Triffids are giant, intelligent, poisonous and mobile plants that were discovered after a possible biological attack gone wrong. After a meteor shower blinds most of the world’s population, the triffids take over. The remnants of humanity band together as civilization falls, fighting the onslaught of these intelligent flowers bent on conquering the world.
Knobweed — The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
Another healing herb. Knobweed sap is a powerful antiseptic, which is used by Kaladin to heal his bridge crew after their dangerous bridge runs across the Shattered Plains. The apothecaries in the military camps control the sap, artificially creating a shortage to line their purses from the needy soldiers and slaves. When Kaladin discovers this, he and his spren Syl start a black market, gathering the herb and selling the precious sap to the apothecaries, using the money to provide for his bridge crew.
Sapient Pearwood — The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
This rare plant grows in areas contaminated by excessive magic. Due to its magical nature it is impervious to magic as well as most physical harm, making it perfect for mage staffs. It is also fiercely loyal to its owner, following it through time and space. While hard to find throughout most of the Discworld, Sapient Pearwood is still fairly common on the fabled Counterweight Continent, where it is common enough to be used as luggage, as demonstrated by Twoflower.
Piers Anthony’s Xanth series is filled with all sorts of unique flora, but the Tangle Tree is the one I remember most. Like most of Xanth, it is modelled after the plants surrounding Anthony’s home in Florida, specifically the cypress. Its tentacled branches hang idle, and it usually spawns some sort of illusion to lure its prey under its canopy. Once there it grabs the victim with its tentacles, kills and eats its victim. The plants are also semi-intelligent, and sometimes will arrange traps or cooperate with other wilderness denizens.
Weirwood were the ancient and magical trees that marked the worship of the Old Gods. The trees possess bleached white bark and red leaves, and worshippers of the Old Gods would often carve faces into their trunks. Sap would often collect in the eyes of these faces, giving the trees the impression of them weeping. Lone weirwood trees were often planted within the castle demesnes and villages. These weirwood, known as heart trees, provided a focus for worship of the Old Gods as well as a place for marital services, because it was believed you could not lie in the presence of a weirwood.
The Truffula Trees once covered the valley, where Brown Bar-ba-loots, Swomee Swans, and Humming Fish frolicked amidst their shade. But the Once-ler cuts a tree down, to make useful Thneeds for the people of the town. This invokes the ire of the Lorax, who speaks for the trees, for they have no tongues. Alas, no one listens as the Once-ler continues to cut down the beautiful truffula trees until the trees and the animals are all gone. But there is hope, as the Once-ler presents a young boy with the last truffula seed to revive the forest. This environmental tale, one of Dr. Seuss’s most famous stories, is a childhood favorite that still resonates. Just ignore the shitty movie adaptation.