The plants rooted in science fiction

Michael Regnier unearths the best plants invented by writers for books and film and the real-life species that inspired them (spoiler alert!)

1. Audrey II

“Feed me, Seymour!”

Most plants are pretty inactive but carnivorous species like the Venus flytrap have inspired many tall tales with their ability to trap and eat insects (see ‘Carnivorous plants’ for more information on these species). It’s a short leap of imagination to imbue them with a taste for people rather than flies.

Appearing first in a low-budget movie in 1960, Audrey is the vegetative star of The Little Shop of Horrors, later made into a stage musical. In the original, she is described as a cross between a butterwort and a Venus flytrap, both of which consume insects in real life. The fictional cross-breed feeds on human flesh and grows until she gains the ability to speak. She even hypnotises her owner, Seymour, who ends up as plant food too.

When the musical version was filmed, Audrey was revealed to be an alien from outer space, and was killed by Seymour. The happy ending was undone by a tiny Audrey-like bud smiling as the credits rolled.


2. Sukebind

“Who’s to know what will happen to me when the sukebind is out in the hedges again and I feels so strange on the long summer evenings–?”

Cold Comfort Farm is a pastoral parody of books about the heady highs and lovelorn lows of rural English life – a popular genre in the 1920s. Despite its familiar setting, Stella Gibbons’s 1932 novel actually takes place in the future – there are videophones and air taxis, Britain and Nicaragua are said to have been at war in 1946, and London’s fashionable Mayfair has become a degenerate slum.

Among Gibbons’s inventions is a flower with dark green leaves and long, pink, tightly closed buds. It grows only near the farm of the title and is a potent aphrodisiac, responsible for lusty behaviour that lands many of the locals in trouble. In folklore, many plants are said to turn a young man’s (or woman’s) fancy to thoughts of love. In fiction, aphrodisiacs can be a handy shortcut to narrative mischief: sukebind is part of a tradition stretching from the purple flower that bewitches fairy queen Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Amortentia love potion in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.


3. Spock’s spores

“What you’re describing was once known in the vernacular as a happiness pill. And you, as a scientist, should know that that’s not possible.”

“Come. I was one of the first to find them. The spores.”

Peat moss, a fairly basic form of plant, can fire its spores at up to 65 miles per hour – although they only get about six inches high before being blown away by the wind. This is just what the moss needs to propagate itself.

Something similar, though on a slightly larger scale, explodes on Omicron Ceti III when the crew of the Starship Enterprise beam down too close to one particular pod plant. Its spores infect everyone they hit, resulting in perfect health and peace of mind – but this paradise state causes victims to lose interest in everything, similar to the effects of drugs like opium, itself derived from poppy flowers. Only intense emotions can dispel the spores’ effects and ensure the crew are free to keep boldly going where no one has gone before.


4. Magical mystery trees

“None were more dangerous than the Great Willow; his heart was rotten, but his strength was green; and he was cunning…”

Symbols of life and renewal, sacred trees are common in myths around the world, as well as in fantasy and sci-fi stories. Fictional examples include the Ellcrys, with silver bark and crimson leaves in Terry Brooks’s Shannara series, and the Great Spirit Tree of Endor in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

Not all trees are benign, though. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits fall foul of Old Man Willow, who pushes Frodo into a river and traps Merry and Pippin in his roots, threatening to crush them to death. They are saved by Tom Bombadil, who sings the tree into submission.

In other stories, it’s the trees that need saving. Dr Seuss wrote The Lorax in 1971. Once again, plants crop up to symbolise the conservation movement as all the Truffula trees get chopped down by the Once-ler to be turned into thneeds (“A Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!”). In the end there is just one Truffula seed left and the Once-ler has realised that, rather than thneeds, “Truffula trees are what everyone needs”.


5. War of the weeds

“The red weed was tumultuous at that time, and nearly choked the bridge roadway; but its fronds were already whitened in patches by the spreading disease that presently removed it so swiftly.”

Most terrestrial plants are green because of the chlorophyll they use to absorb energy from sunlight in order to grow. In The War of the Worlds, H G Wells speculated that the planet Mars appears red to us because that’s the colour of its vegetation. In the novel, the Martians have invaded and brought many seeds with them, but the only extraterrestrial plant that takes to the Earth’s soil is the red weed.

It is truly an invasive species, similar to Japanese knotweed in the real world. Knotweed grows fast and strong, with roots that can damage buildings and roads. It crowds out other species and it is illegal to have it on your property in Australia. In Britain, it has been an offence to plant or grow it in the wild since 1981.

In The War of the Worlds, however, published in 1898, long before Japanese knotweed invaded, the red weed succumbs – as the dastardly Martians will also succumb – to “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth”: bacteria.


6. Pandora’s box

“What we think we know – is that there’s some kind of electrochemical communication between the roots of the trees.”

In 2009, the film Avatar took us to a moon called Pandora. Gravity being significantly weaker than on Earth, its blue inhabitants grow much taller than humans, and animals and plants also grow to giant proportions.

Many stories have considered how plants might adapt to out-of-this-world conditions. In Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees, published in 1984, the eponymous plants grow in orbit around a gas giant. Up to 100 km long, with a tuft at each end that bends in the opposite direction because of their relative movement, the trees look like astronomical integral symbols.

Pandora’s flora and fauna were designed with the help of Jodie Holt, a terrestrial plant physiologist. She used information about the fictional moon’s atmosphere, soil and gravity to speculate how plants might have adapted to it, but drew the line at the suggestion some of them had a nervous system. Instead, Holt suggested communication between the trees on Pandora could be explained by signal transduction, which is how plants actually perceive and respond to stimuli.


7. T’riffic triffids

“You don’t seriously suggest that they’re talking when they make that rattling noise.”

People have been manipulating biology since the dawn of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. By selectively breeding for valued characteristics, we have generated cows that produce more milk and wheat that’s resistant to disease. Genetic engineering does the same, but is faster because it transfers genes directly from one species to another. Some see huge opportunities for the future of food through this approach; others see potential for disaster.

In 1951, John Wyndham created a species of plant that would prove utterly disastrous for humans – albeit only in his novel, The Day of the Triffids. The triffids are carnivorous plants, a little taller than a person, capable of walking and talking to each other. They have a stinger and lethal poison, but are farmed by humans for their nutritious oil and juice. The novel’s human hero, ‘triffidologist’ Bill Masen, suspects they were the accidental result of “a series of ingenious biological meddlings”.

One night, green light from a comet blinds everyone who sees it and the triffids kill everyone except for a few survivors. The story follows Masen’s and others’ attempts to defend themselves against the triffids and rebuild human society.

Lead image:

Olgierd Rudak/Flickr CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Plants’ in May 2016.

Genetics and genomics, Ecology and environment, History, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development