Valerian Tastes Like Dirty Feet: Plant Basics for Fiction Writers

As a sufferer of fiction and flora focused Multiple Obsessions Disorder, I find myself in an odd position when I’m reading fantasy novels. I often know more about plants than the author of the novel I’m reading. And I often notice glaring errors. And I wonder: don’t publishing houses have fact checkers or something? Why didn’t they bother to use them? Did they assume no one would notice?

Plum Blossoms in the SPRING

Probably. There’s a popular conception out there that those who enjoy fantasy novels are, without exception, pasty, doughy, bespectacled, socially awkward brainiacs huddled in darkened rooms eating potato chips and drinking Mountain Dew whilst devouring the latest 900 page epic.

I suppose it is, like most stereotypes, sometimes true.

It is not, however, universally applicable. Some of us readerly and writerly types actually quite like going outdoors. Many of us garden. (I actually started gardening BECAUSE of an obsession with herbs inspired by reading fantasy novels.)

That’s right, authors and publishers. When you get the details wrong? We notice. And fantasy novels are constantly getting plants wrong. And every time I read a major error about plants, I am pulled out of the story by my need to launch a tirade on the foolishness of “city folk” trying to write about plants. (It’s especially ugly when I’m alone in the house.)

So, I’m going to share some very basic plant information for fiction writers, in the hopes that it will lead to fewer incidences of improper plant depiction (say THAT five times fast).

Rosemary: Not a Swamp Dweller

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. If I read one more novel where the heroine gathers LAVENDER in the FOREST I am going to have an aneurism. (Lavender is native to the Mediterranean. It likes full sun and well drained soil.)

2. Every plant blooms at a specific time of year. This time depends on temperature, the amount of rainfall, and a number of other conditions. Bloom time may vary by a few weeks in either direction depending on the weather. But you can at least be pretty sure that Violets will bloom in early Spring, and Lavender will bloom mid to late summer. So, when your heroine goes into the forest to collect Lavender blossoms, she cannot gather them at the same time as she gathers Violet blossoms (which you actually CAN find in the forest, by the way).

3. Herbs, much like pharmaceuticals, usually require multiple doses before achieving a desired healing effect. Please think about this. 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? Um, no. You take several doses. The recovery is gradual. It is the same with plants. While some herbs are very powerful and you will notice a difference immediately, no herb is going to immediately make anyone 100% well. It takes time. So remember: When 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. I have a thing about vomiting. It’s not a good thing.)

Borage in July

4. The really potent medicinal herbs often taste like ass. So, if you want to put someone to sleep by giving her Valerian? The wine you put it in will NOT taste strangely sweet. 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. No, I’m not saying all herbs taste bad. Some of them are delicious. Elderberries, rosehips, rose petals, violet flowers, all yum. But if it’s a root, it probably tastes yucky (yes there are exceptions). If it’s a poison, it’s probably bitter and will probably make the inside of your mouth feel like it’s full of fiberglass insulation.

OBVIOUSLY all of my statements are generalizations. When it comes to plants, there are exceptions and deviations all over the place. Because plants, like people, are individuals. My advice to fiction writers would be this: If you are going to name specific plants, then research the plants you want to name. Or ask someone who knows about them. And if you don’t want to do the research, or don’t want to take the time? Don’t name names. OR, make up FAKE plants. Especially if it’s a fantasy novel–you’re making up a whole world anyway. Just make up a few more things.

Gardening and herbalist friends: what are some other plant rules that are constantly broken in fiction? Educate us!

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19 thoughts on “Valerian Tastes Like Dirty Feet: Plant Basics for Fiction Writers

  1. My parents own a plant nursery, so I totally understand! Great post πŸ™‚

    ps – plants ARE individuals!

  2. Oh so true! Thank you for putting this out there. I don’t know how many times I’ve read about one dosage of a herbal remedy has the hero/heroine springing to their feet the next day! Lavendar in the forest? You’ve seriously seen that? Wow. I have to keep mine in the sunniest spot of the yard.

    Of course, sometimes people can force flowers to bloom early. Florists and stores do that. Like Easter lilies don’t normally bloom in the spring. Some bulbs can be tricked into blooming twice a year too. But the know-how has to be mentioned in a story to make it believable.

    Love this post!

    1. Oh yes. I actually read a novel that had the protagonist gathering Violets and Lavender in the forest at the same time. It was awful! Especially because I adored everything else about the novel, and it was such an unnecessary mistake! It’s so easy to find out what you need to know about plants.

  3. Yes! Now I know to never look for Lavender in the forest.I am sadly ignorant of all things botanical, despite the fact that I had taken a Botany class in my college days. (Hey, I got an A on that one!) I’ve always assumed writers do their research? If ever I have plants in my WIP, I’ll look to you, O Sage One (not the herb), for advice. πŸ˜‰

    1. Ah but see, you realize you’re ignorant, and should you decide a manuscript needed plants, you would do your research. For YOU are smart and pretty.

  4. This post definitely made me laugh, because I have similar pet peeves. Fantasy authors tend to be very good at coming up with a story, but in general, I see a lot of bad writing and a lot of inaccurate facts. It’s like “NOOOOOOO, THAT CAN’T GROW THERE!”

  5. I know nothing about guns. So I research them before I write about them. Similarly, I know nothing about plants. So when I have to write about them… I RESEARCH THEM. Jeez! I don’t understand factual inaccuracy, honestly. It’s like, you’re already ON the computer… the internet is one click away.

    1. Exactly! And I’m not worried about minute details or little known facts. BASICS people, basics. Stuff you could learn from Wikipedia, or Gardening for Dummies.

  6. Totally agree on the Valerian. I used it for my bedtime teas for several years in it’s powdered form, which tended to end up in the bottom of my cup unless I used a paper tea bag. Cunningham’s book of Magical herbs and plants was a book I cherished before it grew legs and wandered away…but that is another story.

  7. I like your obsessive rants. I would never have the energy to do one myself, and I do smile repeatedly throughout reading it, but I agree with every word! Thanks…

    1. Ah, obsessive rants only SEEM like they take energy. Usually they are more like a pressure release valve. This particular issue has been bugging me for two years and I just got around to writing about it. πŸ˜‰

  8. I can completely relate to this, yes writers, we notice the details! Nearly laughed myself off my chair at you Valerian comparison. ^^

    I adore that borage photo by the way, so very beautiful.

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