I recently started a garden, so I've been getting my hands dirty, germinating little seedlings, rolling around in my fresh loamy soil. Ok...I may be a weird dirt goblin, but regardless, plants are top of mind right now.
Plants are one of those topics that can fall into the background vis a vis worldbuilding, but they can add depth, color, and intrigue to your story setting. After all, plants provide nourishment, heal the sick, produce deadly poisons, create potent hallucinogenic effects, and symbolize budding romance, to name a few juicy story-driving tidbits. In this blog post, we'll explore the world of fantasy botany, drawing inspiration from the real world to create unique and captivating plants for your story setting.
- Start with Real-World Inspiration
Nature is a treasure trove of fascinating and exotic plants that can serve as the foundation for your fantasy flora. Great artists steal! Take inspiration from the likes of carnivorous plants like Venus flytraps, the symbiotic relationship of figs and fig wasps, or the towering sequoias that dominate the forests. When I learned of fig wasps, needless to say... I was kinda grossed out. But hey! That's a strong emotion, and strong emotions are inspiring. Familiarize yourself with the wonders (and disturbing facts) of the natural world to spark your imagination.
2. Add a Magical Twist
The beauty of fantasy is that you can take the ordinary and make it extraordinary. If you're short on time, all it takes is one unique twist to turn oregano into a mystical, demon-warding herbal remedy. When designing your plants, consider how you can incorporate magical properties or abilities that will make them stand out. For instance, create a plant that can change colors based on the emotions of those nearby, or a tree whose fruit grants temporary telepathy.
3. Develop a Unique Ecosystem
To create an immersive environment, consider the interactions between your flora and the rest of the world. How do the plants fit into the ecosystem? What creatures rely on them for food or shelter? For example, a plant that emits a bioluminescent glow might attract nocturnal creatures, while its toxic pollen deters predators. While writing about the ecosystem, you'll probably find yourself inspired and making various article stubs for things that interact with your new flora. (Don't get too distracted, or you'll miss the forest for the trees. 😇)
4. Tie the Flora to Your World's History and Culture
If a plant influences the ecosystem, then it surely impacts the intelligent creatures in its vicinity. For centuries, the flora around us has inspired us with beauty, poisoned unfaithful lovers, and provided nourishment in hard times. Perhaps there is a sacred tree that has stood for millennia, holding the collective memories of a lost civilization (don't tell James Cameron). Or maybe there's a rare herb that can only be found on a far-off mountaintop, and its wonders are the subject of many a song. Consider the impact the plant's attributes and effects would have on your locale's cultures and legends.
5. Consider the Practical Applications
Continuing down that line of thought, is the plant a commodity? Is it used for medicine, or food, or as raw materials for crafting? Or are its boons just folk-tale bunk? By thinking through these aspects, you'll create plants that feel more real and grounded. Plants that have value are sought after, and from desire comes the blooms of conflict, and from the blooms of conflict come the juicy fruits of narrative intrigue (ok, sorry, too much metaphor.)
Let's break new ground: Putting it into practice
Ok, now that we know the steps, let's stop beating around the bush. Let's do a practical exercise based on the giant water lily.
Step 1: Research the Giant Water Lily. The Giant Water Lily (Victoria amazonica) is a remarkable plant native to the Amazon River basin. It has massive, floating leaves that can grow up to 10 feet in diameter and support hundreds of pounds. The plant produces large, fragrant flowers that open white and turn pink on the second night of blooming.
Step 2: Brainstorm unique properties inspired by the Giant Water Lily. We could create a fantasy plant called the "Bright Lily." (I never said I was a naming expert.) This rich gold-colored plant has the ability to emit a puzzling purple glow at night, attracting some nocturnal creatures while repelling others. The lilies also filter and purify the water they dwell in, and are thought to make the environment resistant to curses. (Fun fact: this property is real-world inspired too! Lilies, cat-tails, and other aquatic plants are excellent filters, removing sediment and pollutants from the water. Don't eat the forbidden corn dog, though.)
Step 3: Develop a unique ecosystem. The Bright Lily thrives in the marshlands of a vast forest. These marshlands are home to a diverse array of creatures, some of which rely on the lily's glow for navigation, mating, or finding food. They say a species of salamander makes its home on these lilies, and insects have learned to avoid purple light to stay away from their natural predators. The locals exploit this quirk as a natural bug repellant!
Step 4: Connect the plants to your world's history and culture. In the history of our story setting, the Bright Lily played a crucial role in the survival of early civilization. The plant's purifying properties provided clean water during a devastating drought, and its glow served as a beacon of hope during dark times. The lily has since become a symbol of purity, resilience, and guidance, often featured in the art and architecture of local cultures. A town just on the outskirts of the forest uses the dried lilies as home decor, and as models for casting molds.
Step 5: Explore practical applications. It's clear the Bright Lily has several practical applications in our world: light, water, etc. We crafty beings often find ways to exploit every part of a valuable resource– Maybe the lily's roots have further medicinal properties (or maybe they just give you the trots!) Tired fishermen often take naps on the lilies during the oppressive heat of a summer afternoon, or use their sturdy frames to transport cargo across bodies of water.
And that's it!
Fantasy botany can be a powerful tool in the hands of a worldbuilder. By drawing inspiration from the real world and adding a touch of magic, you can create a lush setting for your players or readers to explore. Do so and your world will become the cream of the crop, one fantastic plant at a time.
Does your world have any interesting flora? Come demonstrate your horticultural handiwork in the #worldbuilding channel on Discord.
I've also made a few LegendKeeper related videos on our YouTube channel! Come give them a watch and subscribe to the channel if you like them.