Monday, February 25, 2008

Knowing Your Plants

After a brief hiatus, here we are discussing Radcon 5 again.  

Apparently this panel has been extremely well-attended at other conventions.  Well, not at Radcon 5.  I brought an attendee with me (the unstoppable C.S. Cole) and Gayle, Gerald Nordley's delightful wife, decided the panel would be a great place to knit.  She was absolutely right.

Frieda Orsborn, my fellow panelist, had a wealth of herbal knowledge and she brought some magazines for reference.  I paged through one as we waited for others to show up (didn't happen, although two young men arrived, sat for a minute, probably realized we weren't discussing government moles, and left) and when Gayle asked about ephedra I got to laugh and tell her that it was being re-released to the public by the FDA and here's the article, enjoy!  (I do not endorse the use of ephedra, nor any other herbal product with a very few exceptions, and I'll explain why below.)

Despite the fact that the attendees of Radcon 5 weren't interested in the growing with roots plants as opposed to spy-type plants, we had a lot to say about them.  

For example, say that your fantasy has the characters moving from point A to point B or is describing village life and it sounds like every other fantasy.  You can spice it up considerably by flavoring your text with a healthy dose of what it's really like to  live off the land without modern agriculture and distribution/grocery stores.  

Your job as an omnivore is to be able to eat just about anything to sustain yourself.  A plant's job is to reproduce successfully, and there are several clever strategies by which to do this.  Edible fruit with an undigestible pit is a great one, because your seed gets distributed everywhere.  The trick is to not make your leaves and bark very nutritious or as many an orchard owner can lament to you, the deer (who have adapted to eat stuff that will give us the runs like crazy) will eat the whole tree down to a pitiful stub.  Other methods include relying on seeds that blow around, sprouting from the roots or tips that arch down to the ground and forming big thickets, or dropping seeds from toxic berries and letting those slowly spread your kind and being as poisonous as you know how so that hardly anyone wants to evolve how to eat you when there's a perfectly good apple tree sapling right there to nibble down to a stump (darn you, deer, darn you!)  There are strategies in-between, but remember this is developing with evolution and it's tricky to have totally toxic leaves and yummy fruit at the same time.  It's not something you can necessarily plan, as such, anymore than you can plan to have a boy as your first born without getting nasty (or lucky.)  

But I digress.  The point is that when your heroes head out into the wilderness, they need to find stuff out there that's edible to them that hasn't already been eaten.  If they're out there in the winter, especially in late winter, good frickin' luck.  Everything edible out there has been searched for and assaulted full time by the wild critters.  Also, think about hunting for a little bit.  We have an enormous abundance of deer right now (Kami shakes her fist at them helplessly from the house) and yet there's many a hunter with all kinds of equipment, including firearms, and all the time they can get off work, that will take days and days to bring home their deer.  Wild animals are great at running away from things that want to eat them.  So, your adventurers turn to living off the plant life.  They have options--pine nuts, certain leaves and needles that can make tea, some roots--but it takes a lot of time to find and collect enough of these things to get a halfway decent meal.  Yes, you can eat grubs, but finding and digging for them is time consuming and they're not very filling.  (If you want to try this, I suggest cooking them.  You don't have to eat them raw.)  Also, lots of green matter without starch is going to give them a nasty case of the trots.

Having your villagers wish for the first of the harvest in summer while they're picking greens in the spring can add a lot to your setting.  So can a real understanding of the cyclic nature of primitive agriculture and haphazard storage capabilities of a low-tech society.  It can also be great fun contrasting availability of items in a city where they have access to snow/ice year-round vs. a temperate city vs. the tropics where you can usually find something fruiting year-round.

You certainly don't have to include this stuff in your writing.  After all, folks read to escape the realities of starvation, feast/famine, and the joys of diarrhea.  But like I said, it can set you apart from everyone else and add some tension if you like.  

What about medicinal uses, Kami?  I want my herb wife to be able to heal my character who just got hurt.  I don't want to deal with infections and stuff like that.

You can do that.  But again, let's have some fun with this.  There's a lot of material out there with borderline or outright magical people who can heal heroes from the brink of death with a chocolate-coated magic pill.  The way to make things interesting is to take into account the guesswork involved in this sort of thing.  One of the reasons there are fewer herbs on the market than really ought to be has to do with how our bodies are only partially adapted to eating things that don't want to be eaten.  The gov tries to bring things down to the lowest common denominator, and therefore things get taken off the market or are never approved because an unacceptably large proportion of people are allergic or sensitive to what's otherwise a really good product.  When you use the whole herb rather than a refined extract, the chances that you're sensitive to one aspect or a combinations of an herb's profile of components is that much higher.  The combination/complexity can also provide more benefit than a refined version, or the components can cancel out the overall benefit.  Some systems, most notably the Chinese system of herbal medicine, maintain that medicines have to be crafted for each individual and can't be mass-produced for any real effect.  

Suddenly you can have a lot more fun with your herb wife as she hits and misses with your character's individual chemical tolerances and her local herbal availabilities.  Also, side-effects can be fun to play with.  Your character doesn't get an infection, but now he's nauseated, or groggy, or both and trying to fight the bad guy.

If you know your plants, you can also have a lot  more fun inventing poisons that don't exist.  They sound and act more nasty if you have reality to draw from.

We had a great time, the four of us, discussing plants and how to apply them to fiction (and real life too.)  We got a little bit into lore and how it develops (multi-use or very important core plants can become the center of an entire culture, even naming the people who use it) and chatted a bit about gardening.  (Why the heck is basil so hard for me to grow when everyone else can grow massive pots of it??!!) But mostly we talked at the edges of a really big topic, because an hour is not even close to being enough time to go deep with this stuff.

BTW, I'm always available to answer your plant questions.  I don't know everything, by any means, and I'll let you know if I have to research it because you may be better off researching it yourself.  But if your rhododendron is ailing or you want to know how hard it is to grow a camellia sinensis for tea, etc. I'm here for ya.  Know your plants.  Love 'em.

1 comment:

Flip said...

I don't have any problem with Ephedra but you have to be careful what you take certain supplements first and always consult your doctor