Worldbuilding Flora Part 1 |Worldbuilding 10|
Now that you’ve designed the physical landforms and water features of your world, it’s time to fill your world with life! Today we’re going to be talking about plants. (And maybe a little bit about fungi, which technically aren’t plants, but I wasn’t sure I needed to commit an entire episode to talking about fungi, so here we are.)
Originally, I was going to do one post to cover both flora and fauna. And then realized that was a lot to fit into one post. So then I was going to do one post for each. And then realized that that was a lot too. So this discussion on worldbuilding flora is going to come in two parts. In the next blog, I’ll go over a few tips for creating plants to fulfill some of the most common story roles for plants in fantasy and science fiction stories, but in this post I’m going to go over some general points you’ll want to consider when designing plants of any kind for your world—how your plants might interact with the ecosystems you create and how they might affect your main characters’ lives and cultures. But before all that, here are the usual disclaimers:
This discussion is just an overview on plant life on Earth to help you start brainstorming for your own world. This means that if plants in your world are nothing like plants on Earth, this post won’t be able to tell you what to do or not to do when creating your plants but may still give you ideas for making your plants new and exciting. As usual, don’t feel beholden to the Earth model. It’s far more important for your world to have internal consistency than it is for your world to be an Earth duplicate.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into the topic!
When creating plants for your world, one of the first things you might want to consider is where to find your plants in…
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
Much of Earth’s life can be categorized as producers, consumers, or decomposers, and while that may sound like I’m talking about the lifespan of a television from its birth in a factory to its death in a landfill, I’m actually talking about the circle of life.
Producers aren’t just folks who get a credit in your favourite Netflix shows, they’re also a foundation for much of life as we know it. Producers are your plants, which are able to produce their own food and are an important source of life and nutrition in the food chain. Consumers can’t produce their own food and instead eat plants. Or they eat animals that eat plants. Or both! Then, you have decomposers and detritivores, which consume and break down dead organic material, plant or animal, and return those nutrients to the earth.
“Decomposer” is often used to refer to both decomposers and detritivores, but technically they are separate. Detritivores like worms and insects, ingest dead organic material in the first step of decomposition, but for the second step of decomposition, decomposers like bacteria and fungi, absorb dead organic material. The breaking down of this dead material returns nutrients to the earth so that the producers can take up the cycle of life once more.
Most plants get these nutrients from the sun, soil, and water. They use photosynthesis to help them turn light energy into the chemical energy they need to keep keeping on. This process is also important to our environment, as it pulls carbon dioxide out of the air, traps it in the plant, and releases the all-important oxygen we humans need for, you know, not dying. If plants on your world use a different process and release something other than oxygen, how would other life on your world have to adapt to that atmosphere?
I said most plants rely on those nutrients from the sun, soil, and water, but there are exceptions to the rule. Some plants only need water and not soil. There are also carnivorous plants that meet some of their nutritional needs through consuming invertebrates, and there are parasitic plants that attach themselves to a host from which they drain what energy they need to live. Then, of course, you have the decomposers I mentioned like fungi, that absorb dead organic material and decompose it so the cycle of life can continue.
The heaviest focus of this discussion will be on producers, but when you’re brainstorming for the plant and plant-like life on your world, think about the function you want that plant to have in the food chain. How does it fit into that cycle of producing, consuming, and decomposing? How does its place in that cycle affect its own life cycle?
For example, plants that are eaten by animals may need to grow very quickly in order to mature and scatter seeds for new plants before they meet their demise between the teeth of some cud-chewing ruminant. Or plants may develop poisonous attributes to protect themselves from being eaten. Plants that aren’t regularly eaten might not need to have their own poison and can afford long lifespans and grow more slowly.
What are the stages of development for your plants? How do they get pollinated and reproduce? How do plants in your world make sure their seeds spread as far as possible? Do they adapt to take advantage of water or wind scattering their seeds? Do they develop spines and attach themselves to the coats of animals that wander close? Are their seeds surrounded by enticing fruit designed to attract animals to eat them only to excrete the seeds somewhere else? Or are they parasitic, infecting a host who will then carry the seeds away, die, and nourish the budding plants as they grow?
For a fictional example of this, look no further than The Last of Us. The video game took a real-world fungi’s reproductive process and turned it into nightmare fuel. In The Last of Us, the cordyceps fungi, which in the real world sticks to infecting small insects like ants, adapted to infect humans. Once infected by the parasitic fungus, it spreads through the host, taking gradual control. These people are driven to attack and infect other humans who will also be able to spread the fungus to new places. As the fungus grows inside the human, it deteriorates its host’s mental faculties and physically transforms them as it feeds. Eventually the fungus breaks out of the human’s body and kills its host, but not before spreading spores on the air that wait to infect the next human who comes near.
When considering your plant’s place in the food chain and cycle of life, you might want to consider plant families: plants that are related and may have similar uses or effects. For example, the nightshade family of plants (peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, etc) are delicious and widely used in food, making up a regular part of most people’s diets. But if you have a condition like arthritis or some autoimmune diseases, nightshades are evil incarnate. They can cause inflammation, and for people who already have problems with inflammation, the entire nightshade family can cause pain and illness. Maybe you have a use for something like this in your story. Maybe your fantasy king has reason to believe there’s a spy who has used magic to make himself look like one of the nobles from court. Maybe the king throws a feast and garnishes everything with a plant from a family that weakens a person’s magical abilities, and he sits back to watch for the potential spy to be revealed as they consume the plant and lose hold over their magical disguise. Maybe other plants in that plant family have similar but subtly different effects on people’s magic capabilities.
Another incredibly important thing to consider with the plants of your world is the environment they are adapted to, as that will affect where those plants can or cannot be found. As mentioned, plants tend to get their nutrition from sun, soil, and water, and therefore the abundance and condition of those three things will affect what plants will grow, how many of them will grow, and how well they’ll grow.
Places where the soil is rich with nutrients will be able to support more plant life. Places where soil may be depleted in nutrients, such as the wetlands I mentioned in a previous post, are likelier to have plant life unique to them—plant life specifically adapted to low-nutrient soil or plant life adapted to make up that nutrient deficiency in other ways. As I mentioned in that post, you may find more carnivorous plants that make up for the lack of nutrients by feeding on insects. Maybe you have carnivorous plants in your world that are dangerous to far bigger things than insects.
The same is true for places where water is scarce. Plants in these areas are likely to adapt ways to conserve water. They might have spines instead of leaves that allow the plant to collect condensation in the air and drip it toward their roots. Maybe those roots spread wide instead of deep, sucking up every drop of rare rainfall near the surface before it has a chance to dry up. I mentioned in my post on the physical landforms of your world that mountains affect the climate around them. One side of a mountain range is likely to get more precipitation than the other, which means you’ll find lusher vegetation on one side, such as the green forests in British Columbia, and may only have grasslands or even deserts on the other side of the mountain range, such as the prairies of Alberta. Plants that need a lot of water, such as willow trees, will be more common in wetlands or alongside rivers and lakes. They can be difficult or expensive to keep in good health in arid areas of the world. Maybe rich folk in your world display their status with trees or flower gardens full of non-native plants most people couldn’t afford to keep alive.
And, of course, the same deal goes for plants growing where light is limited. You might have plants that adapt to bloom very early in the spring before the buds on taller plants have a chance to bloom and block out sunlight. Some plants might develop vines to climb up those taller plants to seek out more light. Other plants might develop leaves that stay green all year to collect even winter sun or leaves specifically designed to trap light in low-light conditions. For example, they might grow leaves that are wide but very thin, allowing them to conserve the energy of growing those leaves while maximizing the amount of sunlight they take in. As I mentioned in my post on water features, aquatic plants can only survive as deep as the sunlight will penetrate the water. But maybe in your world aquatic life adapts in other ways to those low levels of light. Animal sea monsters are common in fantasy and sci-fi, but why not design a carnivorous sea plant that feeds on deep-sea dwelling merfolk to make up for the lack of sunlight?
When thinking of how the environment will affect what plants grow there, make sure you consider how plants adapt to meet their nutritional needs throughout the year. In areas with long winters, there may only be a very short growing season. Native plants may need to grow quickly, or they may have to adapt to low light and cold seasons.
But plants not only have to adapt to obtain the nutrition they need, they also must adapt to protect themselves. They might need to protect themselves from wind and storms, perhaps developing deep roots and flexible stems. They may also need to defend themselves from harmful insects and animals, growing spines or poisonous leaves, disguising themselves to look like dangerous plants, or even developing reflexive responses such as curling up their leaves when touched. They may have symbiotic relationships with other plant or animal species, offering, say, a sheltered place for an animal to live while that animal feeds on insects that would harm the plant.
Also consider that sometimes the way a plant adapts to defend itself from one danger may end up making it more enticing to another, especially if a non-native animal species is set loose in the area, as the plant might not have evolved to defend itself against that species. You could even have an entire plot devoted to an invasive species, human or otherwise, disturbing an ecosystem and the beings who depend on it.
When it comes to a plant’s defenses making it enticing to another species, take coffee beans for an example. That caffeine you so crave? It was meant to be a poison to keep insects from eating the plant. Technically it’s poisonous for humans too. But coffee could not have predicted the levels humans would stoop to wake them up for their day job? So, think about what sort of defenses the plants in your world have and whether those defenses are harmful or helpful to the people who inhabit your world.
Speaking of being harmful or helpful, you might want to spend some time thinking about how the people in your world will interact with the plants. What plants are considered weeds? Which are considered beautiful? Are there any legends or lore tied to any of your plants? Are different parts of the plants useful for different things? Roots useful for one purpose, petals for another, seeds for another yet?
How do races, cultures, classes, or religions in your world use different plants? On Earth, plants are very closely tied to so many levels of human existence. We eat them. We also feed them to our livestock, pets, or the animals we use to help us with our industry. We use plants for medicine, for pesticides to keep harmful critters away from our crops, or for lures to attract critters that will keep harmful critters away from our crops. Are there plants your farmers grow to keep fantasy pests out of their gardens? Are there plants they grow to attract rare birds or butterflies?
But humans use plants for much, much more than making sure our bellies get filled or our illnesses cured. We use plants as fuel, such as the logs that feed the fires that warmed our homes before the days of central heating. We use plants as important materials for our tools, for building homes, our transportation, and for knowledge or leisure. We sometimes use plants as protection, such as planting tree lines to lessen the strength of winds. Our clothing might be made from plants too—everything from sandals to shirts to hats. The dyes we use to colour said clothing might also be from plants. We even use plants for spiritual health, taking walks or sitting in a garden to commune with nature, to heal from the stresses of life, or, for some, to entreat with spiritual beings or nature deities.
And we also use plants for social or cultural purposes. Flowers for anniversaries, weddings, or funerals. Plants may play symbolic roles in religious customs, like Christmas trees. Think about the religious significance certain plants might have in your world. If you have a world with a religious state, are there laws forbidding the use of certain plants or laws protecting them? What happens if an outlander moves in and uproots what they consider a weed only to find out the locals consider it sacred?
Think of how a plant might become a cultural symbol, like how the poppy can be a symbol of remembrance or a red rose a symbol of romantic love. How do those symbols vary across the cultures in your world? How do those symbols vary across class or occupation? Maybe dandelions can be a symbol of healing, rebellion, or pestilence depending on who you’re talking to.
Maybe your world has its own version of Victorian flower language. Maybe there are even secret plant languages for spies or that certain marginalized groups use to communicate safely among each other. A similar thing was done in The Wheel of Time, where traveling Aes Sedai could look for flowers tied with a ribbon of a certain colour and placed in a window. If they found them, they knew the person who lived there was an ally to their Ajah.
When determining the usefulness of a plant to the people of your world, you’ll want to take into consideration that plant’s scarcity. The resources your people have available to them will factor into the development and aesthetics of their cultures. The availability of plants will affect everything from your people’s diets and farming practices, to what kinds of clothing they wear and what dyes are considered desirable or affordable, to what their buildings and modes of transportation look like. For examples, people who live where it’s hard for trees to grow either will not build their houses out of wood to begin with or they’ll have developed a reliable system of trade for lumber. If they keep building things out of wood without a way to sustainably replenish that supply, they’ll run out of trees and have to figure out new methods to build.
You can also consider how plants might be connected to livelihoods, economies, and international relations. What happens to livestock dependent on a particular plant when a drought means there isn’t enough of that plant to feed them? What happens to farmers if a law or new religious rule is introduced that forbids people from using the only plants they grow? What happens to an economy based on the sale of a specific grain if trade routes are barricaded? What happens to people in other lands who depend on that plant but can’t grow it where they live? What happens to a tiny town when the very rare plant that happens to grow abundantly around them suddenly becomes important and desirable to other communities that can’t grow that plant? Do nations start wars over control of environments where rare plants grow?
Consider also how your people, animals, and other plant species might be beneficial or harmful to your plants. Just because they eat the plants, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re harmful. Many plants are able to spread their seeds mainly because their fruit are eaten and carried off by humans and animals. Many species of plants thrive because they are useful to humans. The more useful it is, the more humans are likely to grow it deliberately, protect it during its lifespan, and to carry it to non-native lands.
But, this traveling of plant species due to humans or animal activity can also mean harm for the local plant life now being invaded by new plant species. Those new plant species can disturb the balance of delicate ecosystems. Maybe new plant species choke the roots of native plants or block access to the sun. Maybe plants that require a lot of water take more than their fair share and leave little for the other plants in places where water is limited. Plants that live in arable areas may be uprooted to make room for crop fields. What happens to wildlife when the trees they lived in have been replaced with potato patches? Do monsters from the magical woods wreak havoc on the farmers’ fields that displaced them?
But speaking of the usefulness of plants, there are some very common roles given to plants in fantasy and sci-fi worlds. Where should you put your magical forest? How should you use plants to make invented medicines or poisons?
That, and more, is what we’ll be going into next post, so I’ll save the challenge and Project: Noveljutsu discussion for then. Hope to see you then!