Worldbuilding Flora Part II |Worldbuilding 11|
Welcome back to another worldbuilding episode. In the last one we discussed some generic points to consider about plant life in your world such as how it fits into the cycle of life, how it might have adapted to a specific environment, and how plants can be useful or harmful to the people inhabiting your world.
In this post I wanted to discuss a few of the most common uses for plant life in fiction. Before we do that, the usual disclaimers apply. I will raise some questions meant to prompt you to think about how to create unique plant species of your own, but the bulk of this post will deal with plant life on Earth. Use this information to help you create Earth-like vegetation if that’s what you want, or use it to imagine cool ideas for plants unlike any on Earth. You do you, but remember that this is just an overview. Do further research if your story depends on deep scientific accuracy.
With that said, let’s dive into the first reason you may want to build plant life into your world.
What is a fantasy novel without the occasional forest full of elves, noble bandits, or giant spiders?
Ultimately, anything it wants to be, as fantasy is a diverse genre independent of any one biome, but whimsical or dangerous forests are very common in fantasy and sometimes in science fiction, and you just might want to have an exciting forest of your own to play with in your world.
On our world, forests can be found around the globe, but what kind of forest and what kind of trees you’ll find in them varies based on a few key factors such as latitude, elevation, and precipitation levels. For our purposes, there are three main types of forest biomes.
1. BOREAL FORESTS
Boreal forests are subarctic forests predominantly comprised of coniferous tree species. They may contain some deciduous trees like birch, more so in the southernmost regions these forests are found, but mostly you’ll find coniferous evergreens like pine, cedar, fir, and spruce. These trees survive more easily in colder climes and higher elevations, and so they are the main kind of forest in northern areas of the world such as Canada, Russia, or Alaska.
Because of their northern location, boreal forests don’t receive sunlight as strongly as other parts of the world. Very far north, they may have summers with long days or even periods where the sun will be up day and night, but even though there are times each year where they receive more hours of sun than many other parts of the world, the angle of the sun means it isn’t as intense, and, of course, these forests will also see a lot of very short days in the winter. To help make up for this lack of strong sunlight, evergreens keep their needles all year round, allowing them to collect and store what sunlight they can even outside of their growing season when they don’t need to use up that energy.
This lack of strong sunlight, however, also means there’s less evaporation and that boreal forests require less precipitation than other forests. They may get much of their moisture from snow. Fog, too, in part because of the lack of strong sunlight, is a common source of moisture in these forests. You are also likely to find many lakes and bogs intermingled with these forests as a result of how glaciers shaped the northern regions as they receded many thousands of years ago.
The soil in boreal forests tends to be poor for a number of reasons. Colder temperatures make it harder for soil to develop nutrients as well as for plants to pull those nutrients out of the soil. Smaller animal populations also mean less fertilization of that soil. And not only do coniferous trees not drop an abundance of leaves to nourish the soil, the acids in their needles likewise make the forest floor acidic, which can make it difficult for many plants to grow. Plants you may find growing alongside these coniferous trees include moss in the southern boreal forests and lichen in the sparser, northern boreal forests. You can also find wildflowers and shrubs with berries, like cranberries.
The cold, harsh climes boreal forests are found in means that there is less diversity of animal wildlife, but you can still expect to find animals like deer, moose, and caribou; fish that can withstand cold waters; beaver; hare; but relatively few species of amphibians or reptiles. To find enough food to survive, predatory animals must either be omnivorous, like bears or raccoons, or be able to travel long distances in search of prey, like lynxes and wolves. Insect species are common around lakes and bogs, and so are the hardy bird species that eat them.
2. TROPICAL AND SUBTROPICAL FORESTS
Tropical forests are the most common type of forest on Earth, making up nearly half (45%) of all forests, and they cover the, you guessed it, tropical regions of our planet. Because these parameters cover a lot of area, tropical forests can be incredibly diverse and difficult to categorize. There are wet jungles, tropical coniferous forests, Savannah forests, and more that fall under the definition of “tropical forest,” but they can be subcategorized into three main groups:
Tropical/subtropical coniferous forests – As the name suggests, these are coniferous forests in the tropical region and are mostly found in North and Central America, though they can be found elsewhere, like in India and the Philippines. They are adapted to low levels of precipitation, and may be accompanied by mushroom, fern, and shrub species. Expect to see migratory birds taking their winter vacation in these forests.
Tropical/subtropical moist broadleaf forests – These forests are characterized by high precipitation and warm climes with small variation in temperature, and they’re found along the equator. You might be surprised to learn that, despite the abundance of plants that grow, the soil in these forests is often poor. This is in part due to the amount of rainfall washing away the nutrients as well as the fact that warm temperatures mean that the decay of dead organic material can happen too quickly for the soil to absorb much of it. Due to the poor soil and the warm climate negating a need for trees to shed their leaves for winter, you will find many evergreen species of trees like rosewood, palm, mahogany, and tamarind. In fact, you will find many species in these biologically diverse forests, period. As much as half of the world’s known animal species are found in these forests, everything from myriad species of monkeys and apes, birds, deer, big cats, snakes, amphibians, and insects.
Tropical/subtropical dry broadleaf forests – These tropical rain forests, while they are in warm climates and may receive abundant rainfall during certain seasons of the year, experience months-long dry periods and droughts. Because of this, expect to find these forests dominated by deciduous trees like teak that drop their leaves to conserve water during the dry seasons, which allows for sunlight to reach and nourish a dense underbrush, but these forests may also contain evergreen species in areas where there is ground water to nourish them throughout dryer seasons. While wildlife populations are not as diverse as with wet forests, you can still expect a wide array of birds—including flightless birds, deer, monkeys, and big cats.
3. TEMPERATE FORESTS
Finally, we have temperate forests, which experience climates with temperature variations that may include warm summers as well as winters that dip below freezing temperatures. Due to climate variations and the vastness of the area of Earth they cover, temperate forests can vary widely in tree and animal species. There are deciduous forests with tree species like oak that experience a winter season and precipitation in one form or another all year round. Where water is scarcer and the soil poorer, you may find coniferous forests which are more suited to harsher environments than deciduous trees. There are mixed forests populated by both coniferous trees, like fir and pine, and deciduous trees, like maple and poplar. Then there are temperate rainforests with evergreen tree species and dense underbrush, though these rainforests are found only in coastal areas that experience a lot of precipitation, such as in the Vancouver area.
The quality of soil in these different kinds of temperate forests varies in part according to the makeup of the soil, amount of precipitation, and the plant species growing in the area. (A reminder that coniferous species will turn the soil acidic where deciduous tree species may nourish the ground with their leaves.) That quality of soil will in turn affect what other kinds of plant species, and therefore animal species, will be found in the area.
Temperate forests are also the forests most likely to coincide with a lot of human activity. Temperate regions are, after all, usually where the climate is most comfortable for human life. This means that temperate forests have experienced a lot of deforestation at human hands as towns and cities popped up and livestock and farming practices called for the clearing of huge swaths of land. (Though it's important to note that not all agricultural practices call for European-style deforestation and ploughed fields. Many Indigenous American peoples, for example, cultivated plants for various uses without requiring the mass destruction of ecosystems and habitats, so be careful of assuming that broad wheat and potato fields that clear the land and displace the wildlife are “just how it’s done.”)
So, those are the main kinds of forests. Hopefully that will give you a start in designing forests of your own to cover your world, but there are just a few other things you might want to take into consideration when placing and designing your forests.
The first is how dense your forest is, particularly how dense the canopy of your forest is, will play a role in what other life lives in your forest. The denser the forest canopy, the less light reaches the forest floor, and therefore plant species at ground level will either be sparse or will be adapted to low levels of light. And, of course, what plant species grow alongside your trees will have a ripple effect that decides what other animal species survive in the area.
The last thing I wanted to bring up about forests is tree lines, beyond which trees cannot grow. On Earth, trees simply don’t grow beyond certain latitudes or above certain altitudes. So, you may want to watch out for both of those things when placing forests on your map, unless you specifically want to design a fantasy tree adapted to those extreme environments. Could be cool to have a tree species that only grows at the north pole and has found a way to synthesize energy from the cold itself.
MEDICINAL AND POISONOUS PLANTS
“Poisonous” and “medicinal” are sort of two sides to the same coin when it comes to plants. In fact, whether a plant is considered a medicine or a poison may depend entirely on what condition is being treated. A plant that causes a person to vomit might sound like a poison…until someone has ingested something even worse that they need to get out of their system. Suddenly taking something to make you throw up is probably a good idea. A plant that causes the heart to slow down drastically could be very dangerous for an ordinary person but life-saving for someone with an illness that causes their heart to speed exhaustively. As I mentioned in the last post, caffeine is a poison that humans by and large have accepted as part of their regular diet. There are risks and health hazards attributed to this, but caffeine can also be an important medicinal ingredient.
So, if you have need of medicinal or poisonous plants in your story, you might want to think about how a single plant might be both a medicine and poison. When will that plant be deadly or harmful, and when will it be life-saving? Is only part of the plant poisonous or medicinal? Is one part deadly and another beneficial? Is this plant rare and in high demand and therefore expensive to make medicines and poison from? Or does it grow in everybody’s back yard?
You might also want to think about how plant families might counteract each other. To use that earlier example, maybe you have one family of plants known to increase the heart rate. Some plants in that family might be better at it than others. Some may barely increase the heart rate at all and be a common part of breakfast as farmers heading out for an early morning of work try to wake themselves up. But a second family of plants might then decrease the heart rate. Same deal—some plants in the family will have stronger results than others. Some might be very deadly, and some might decrease the heart rate just enough to help someone’s body slow down for a good night’s rest. But the plants from these two families might work well to counteract each other. They would each be the other’s “antidote,” as it were. The stronger the poison a person consumes from one plant family, the stronger the antidote they may need from the other.
We can’t have a discussion on plants and their uses in fiction without at least mentioning edible plants, but when I sat down to make notes for this section, I realized that worldbuilding food and cuisine really deserves its own discussion. So, I’ve stuck a pin in a lot of those notes and will hold them back for when we start getting into discussing worldbuilding cultures. For now I’ll say that what plants your people eat and how can be a great way to make your world feel deep, diverse, and distinct.
You don’t necessarily have to info-dump entire recipes into your novel, but a little detail here and there about the kind of plants your characters and cultures consume, how they prepare them, and how they serve them can tell us a lot about those people and your world.
Some things you might want to consider for each region of your world is what plants make up the staple of their diet, if there’s some system of trade or redistribution that takes those plants to places they aren’t grown, and how farming practices and trade routes will affect both the topographical and economical landscape of those regions.
THIS IS ALL A LITTLE MUCH TO HANDLE
By now you probably realize that there is a lot to think about when it comes to designing plants for your world. You might have to consider how your invented plants fit into everything from the geography, ecology, climate, culture, class, and the economy of the place you want them to grow. That’s a lot to deal with.
Which is why I felt the need to mention that it’s entirely okay to take heavy inspiration or even entirely base your fantasy and sci-fi plants off of real-life plants on Earth. If you want to design a completely new, super cool and original plant for your world, that’s fantastic! But for most stories it is probably also unnecessary. It’s okay to have regular rose bushes in your fantasy world. It’s okay if the only thing you want to change about those rose bushes is the colour of the flower petals or the scent they give off. It’s okay if you call it a rose bush, and it’s okay if you give it a new name to fit in with the aesthetics of your world.
There are a lot of neat things you can do with inventing your own plants, but even if you choose to fill your world with plants from Earth, you can still choose to tweak how those plants are used and viewed by the cultures in your world, making them feel unique.
Whether it means creating a brand new tree of your own from its roots to the tips of its leaves or sticking with the same old willow tree in your back yard, do whatever suits your writing style and your story best.
Over the past several posts I've figured out the basic topography and climate for Project: Noveljutsu, so now it's time to find the most likely places for forests and grasslands.
I’ve started filling in those details. You’ll see that the right side of the mountain range has fewer forested areas, as that’s the drier side of my mountains. My world has a bit of a warmer clime, but it’s still temperate, so these forests are pretty much all temperate forests. Most of them are primarily deciduous, but I’ve marked out a few coniferous forests where I figured the soil quality wouldn’t be as great. I didn’t draw them in because I didn’t want the map to get too cluttered, but there are also some coniferous forests in the mountains themselves.
These details I’ve drawn in might change as I develop my story. That’s totally okay. Your world and story should go together, so it’s okay to decide you need to change the landscape of your world a bit to suit the story you need to tell. For now I’ve placed a lot of forests near the rivers, but since towns and cities are most likely to grow alongside sources of water as well, meaning the people of my world will likely have cleared some of those forested river valleys to make way for houses and farms, what I’ve drawn here almost certainly will change before I’m done with it. I also haven’t fully decided yet if any of these forests will be magical in nature, but I’ll figure that out too as my story ideas develop.
As for other plants in my world, I know that I’m going to need plants for healing. So I’m developing a few plants that are mildly poisonous so as to have numbing characteristics. They’ll help numb pain, for example, when their leaves are crushed and laid over a wound or brewed in a tea. I also think I’m going to end up having a character dealing with bad dreams and sleepless nights, so I also want a herb that’s going to numb the mind more so than the body. If someone takes this with a drink or meal before bed, that numbing effect will make them sluggish and drift off into an easier, dreamless sleep.
Once again, I’ll know more about what plants I need and what effects I need them to have as I develop my world more and learn more about the people inhabiting it, but for now, I think this is a good start.
Now that you know a thing or two about why plants might develop the way they do, it’s time to get some practice designing a plant of your own! I’ve made three lists below. The first thing I want you to do is decide whether your practice plant-like species will be a producer or decomposer. Since we’re inventing a fictional plant and fantasy rules may apply, I’ll even let you decide to make a brand new species of plant that’s a consumer. The next list deal with the plant’s native environment and things in that native environment it needs to defend itself against. Once you’ve decided whether your plant is a producer, consumer, or decomposer, I want you to pick at least two things from either the “Environment” or “Defense” lists, or one of each, and think of ways your plant will have adapted to those things. Maybe it’s adapted to protect itself from a species of parasitic vines that likes to strangle and feed off of other plant life, and it's also adapted to survive regular nights filled with acidic fog. How does your plant adapt to survive or even thrive in that environment? And finally, once you’ve done that, I want you to think about how those very adaptations the plant has might make it desirable and useful to humans living in the area. How does that plant benefit them or how might it benefit from the humans living in the area?
-long, cold winters
-violent wind storms
Let’s use my medicinal plant that will help relieve pain as an example. My plant will be a producer and probably some sort of flowering herb. I’ve decided I want it to grow in wooded areas near water, which means it will have to adapt to shade by having broad, thin leaves to more easily collect what sunlight filters through the treetops. It will also have developed a mild poison to protect itself from grazers, whose mouths and tongues turn numb if they eat the plant. You might also want to consider how your plant reproduces and spreads its seeds. In the case of my herb, I think it will have sweet-scented flowers that entice insects to visit and help with pollination. It’s seeds will have tiny little spines that latch onto animals coming to drink at the water sources it grows near just long enough to get carried away to a new place to sprout by the water’s current or waves.
That’s it for this post and for our discussion on worldbuilding plant life for your stories. Next we'll move onto designing fauna to inhabit your world, so if you found this post helpful, be sure to check out the next one when it drops!