Using Plants In Your Writing

I recently realized that my writing group contains folks with a breathtaking array of expertise and interests. We’ve decided to start putting together writeups linking writing and one of our areas of interest. This is my first contribution to the exercise. I will probably do more, as this was quite fun and I have an awful lot more to talk about!

So, then: Writing With Plants. Onward!

Especially if you live in more citified environments, it’s easy to overlook how much impact plants have in our lives, and even easier to leave them out of our writing. But they’re as prevalent — and literally as important — as the air we breathe. Areas devoid of plant life will have entirely different air quality, for instance. Assuming a moderate, four-seasons geographical area for the following, because that’s what I have the most experience with:

Butterfly

Spring is a time of lots of flowers and wildly fast growth, as well as an endless stream of bugs emerging from hibernation and setting about their own life cycles with great enthusiasm. Trees that have been stark and dormant will be setting bud. Birds will be coming back from the south. There’s a ton of stuff happening every time your characters walk outside. Pollen! God, don’t forget the evil, evil pollen. If there are pine trees, oaks, and maples nearby, this is the time when everything is yellow and allergies get debilitating. Folks with breathing issues might have to wear masks to be outdoor for any length of time, or be on a stack of medications. There are seed capsules dropping everywhere — from cute winged maple seeds to the much less adorable sweet gum round caltrops. Butterflies start showing up everywhere.

Summer is muggy and hot and the air gets hazy. Thunderstorms blow up out of seemingly nowhere and flood beginning gardens, wind whipping the still-tender stems, bowing or breaking taller plants if there’s not a support already in place. The bugs are in full swing, mating and reproducing and gobbling up everything in the garden. Each type of bug gravitates to a specific plant or environment: japanese beetles love canna lillies, tomato hornworms of course go after tomato plants, and so on. Ladybugs are a beneficial insect that eat a lot of those nasty little aphids; they have a lookalike that’s very much not beneficial, though. Even if your characters aren’t gardeners themselves, it’s very likely that overheard conversations will involve despair about growing issues and bug damage. And the shops will of course be pushing the latest fast fix — sonic repellent, organic super-spray, etc.

Overgrown Ditch

Walking through a thick forest will be an absolute nightmare this time of year, with deep leaf litter, enthusiastically abundant undergrowth, and a gazillion ticks, spiders, hornets, and other bugs swarming over any living flesh that steps nearby. (I’m scratching my arms and legs just thinking about it!) Visibility will be reduced to a matter of arm’s-length in any kind of undergrowth-heavy environment. As I write this, I’m looking out at an area I used to be able to see ten feet into, in the fall and winter, and it’s completely blocked by greenery. COMPLETELY. I couldn’t even walk through it without a machete. But in fall it will all be clear again, reduced to brittle sticks poking out of the ground.

Hurricanes start showing up, and with drenching rain and high winds some of those big trees WILL tear out of the ground and come crashing down. Fun fact: Most trees actually have super shallow root systems. There aren’t many that have a central taproot going straight down. That’s why a lot of rain and wind dumps them right over.

Fall is a time when squirrels and birds are in a feeding frenzy. Everything’s getting ready for hibernation. Great drifts of leaves pile up on wooded lots, rain increases, hurricanes continue to be a problem, and more dead trees/overloaded trees come down. If you live in the country, this is when you really want underground power lines! Plants start dying back; ornamental grasses turn a nice yellow-gold-tan and become a favorite gathering spot for birds going after the dried seedheads. The weather turns erratic, snapping from ultra hot to sharply cold with no rhyme or reason. Fall-blooming plants start busting out with enthusiasm; I’ve had daffodils and irises and lillies come back into full bloom in August/September. Gardeners are mulching and weeding and setting everything up for overwintering. Local conversations (in country/urban settings) will probably involve a lot of bird sightings and talk about where to find the best compost/mulch, how to overwinter your plants, and people wondering if they should try growing herbs indoors. Maybe even seed swaps, since this is when gardeners start setting aside seed for the following year.

Snow covered trees

Winter is a time of dry, dry, dry. Everything’s really quiet, unless you have a bird feeder out. Nothing is growing. Everything’s holding still. Rosemary and other evergreen type plants just kind of hunker down and survive; everything else should already have been cut back to a stub. Trees look grim and dark. Critters and bugs will be trying to find warmth and will probably invade your home, no matter if you live in the country or the city. Plant wise, there’s nothing to see but skeletons, but those skeletons can be pretty damn interesting. Without the obscuring leaves, trees and bushes form some seriously bizarre twisty shapes. Walking by them on a moonlit night can be a very anxious experience for anyone worried about, for example, being stalked. Shadows get super weird in winter, in my experience, because the angles are all wrong without foliage in the way. And of course fresh produce is expensive as hell, if it’s even available in your setting; even in modern America, there are poverty stricken areas where the Dollar Store is the best grocery option around. (Look up “food deserts” when you get a chance. It’s appalling.)

So there you go. I hope that helped prompt some ideas on how to expand your worldbuilding! This is a very off the cuff post, more stream of consciousness than meticulous, so feel free to chime in with your own observations and corrections and additions. I know I barely touched the edges of the subject!

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