The Ubiquitous Plants

Plants are all around us, so it’s no wonder that crime stories occasionally take advantage of what’s right at hand and make them part of a story. The fascinating history of poisons is just one example, and the history of my favorite poisoner Mithradates Eupator is well worth a read. As a recent post mentioned, analysis of plant matter is a frequent part of crime investigations too—what pollen or bit of plant material is present that shouldn’t be? (Writers of ITV’s Vera frequently include such clues.)

How digested is a victim’s plant-based stomach contents? How did authors use that peat bog (Val McDermid) or giant witch elm (Tana French) to conceal a body? A reader commenting thatRuth Ware’s Turn of the Key was too far-fetched asked, “Whoever heard of a poison garden?” This is a person who doesn’t know her Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is one of my favorite Hawthorne stories! (Maybe the commenter knows her Marvel Comics heir, Monica Rappaccini.)

There’s another side to planting plant evidence too. Rather than obscuring the method, timing, and place of a crime, plants can be used proactively, to send a message, not hide it. Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel The Language of Flowers takes on this topic explicitly, and a young couple lets specific flowers say what they are reluctant to express directly. (How Victorian!) As one reviewer said, it’s “a captivating novel in which a single sprig of rosemary speaks louder than words.”

For a tutorial on the practice of floriography, remnants of which have survived thousands of years, Amazon has at least two well received books (The Complete Language of Flowers and Floriography), neither of which I’ve read. Both are well illustrated, though some others are not, which is a big disadvantage when you want to see whatever it is so you can describe it.

Online sources helped me decide which flowers a character deeply sorry about the way he’d treated his late wife and son should choose. He took pale pink roses to his wife’s grave and to their son’s, asphodel, the flower of regret.

Roses have many meanings including as a symbol for silence or secrecy (“sub rosa”) dating to the myths of ancient Greece. Red roses are associated with both courage and romantic love. Yellow roses, aside from the Texas association, symbolize friendship and new beginnings. White roses are linked to innocence and purity, explaining their frequent appearance in bridal bouquets. Pale pink roses, as in my story, are linked to sympathy. Have one character give another a black rose and you’ve sent a message.

Floriography has been practiced for thousands of years, and even though your readers may not know the details, carefully selecting which flowers you use in a story adds emotional resonance, and for the cognoscenti, a grace note of delight. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling have used flowers in this way. Ophelia’s flowers included rosemary (remembrance), pansies (thoughts), fennel (sorrow), columbines (affection), and daisies (innocence and purity). New meanings keep being added to our store of floriography too. One of the most compelling of recent years was London’s public art installation to commemorate the outbreak of World War I. Each of the 888,246 red ceramic poppies represented a British or colonial service member who died in the Great War. If you study the pictures, you’ll never forget the association.

poppy poppies Beefeater London
A small section of the 2014 London installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing a member of the British military who died in World War I (photo: Shawn Spencer-Smith, creative commons license)

4 thoughts on “The Ubiquitous Plants

  1. Thanks for this resource, Vicky. It will come in handy for plotting murders for my gardener sleuths, Holly and Ivy, to solve. I’d also like to recommend Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart. In it, I found the perfect poison for my Murder Under Tuscan Blooms.

  2. Love this.

    On Mithradates, when on a Mediterranean cruise in 2001, we were diverted from Kronos Island, Greece, to Kucadaci, Turkey, when there was a Greek bus drivers strike.

    It was a serendiptous event that led us to Ephesus, a most remarkable ancient city being restored with support from Austria. It was there, halfway up the chariot rutted marble road that I saw the Arch of Mithradates next to that of Trajan.

    My favorite British poem from 10th Grade English in 1960 is “Terrence this is stupid stuff” by Housman. I particularly was enthralled by its ending:
    59 There was a king reigned in the East:
    60 There, when kings will sit to feast,
    61 They get their fill before they think
    62 With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
    63 He gathered all that springs to birth
    64 From the many-venomed earth;
    65 First a little, thence to more,
    66 He sampled all her killing store;
    67 And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
    68 Sate the king when healths went round.
    69 They put arsenic in his meat
    70 And stared aghast to watch him eat;
    71 They poured strychnine in his cup
    72 And shook to see him drink it up:
    73 They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
    74 Them it was their poison hurt.
    75 –I tell the tale that I heard told.
    76 Mithridates, he died old.

    When I viewed the name on the Arch, I had a rush of oneness with history, almost a religious epiphany. My education fulfilled. A 41 year old memory recaptured gave me such a sense of satisfaction only equaled by getting a yearlong programming project working in my first post graduate school job. I felt it in my loins. Who’d a thunk it possible?

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