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Article

Susan McHugh

In countless ways, plants have been in literature from the start. They literally provide surfaces and tools of inscription, as well as figuratively inspire a diverse body of writing that ranges from documenting changing social and ecological conditions to probing the limits of the human imagination. The dependence of human along with all other life on vegetal bodies assures their omnipresence in literatures across all periods and cultures, positioning them as ready reference points for metaphors, similes, and other creative devices. As comestibles, landscape features, home décor, and of course paper, plants appear in the pages of virtually every literary text. But depictions of botanical life in action often prove portentous, particularly when they remind readers that plants move in mysterious ways. At the frontiers of ancient and medieval European settlements, the plant communities of forests served as vital sources of material and imaginative sustenance. Consequently, early modern literature registers widespread deforestation of these alluring and dangerous borderlands as threats to economic and social along with ecological flourishing, a pattern repeated through the literatures of settler colonialism. Although appearing in the earliest of literatures, appreciation for the ways in which plants inscribe stories of their own lives remains a minor theme, although with accelerating climate change an increasingly urgent one. Myths and legends of hybrid plant-men, trees of life, and man-eating plants are among the many sources informing key challenges to representing plants in modern and contemporary literature, most obviously in popular genre fictions like mystery, horror, and science fiction (sf). Further enlightening these developments are studies that reveal how botanical writing emerges as a site of struggle from the early modern period, deeply entrenched in attempts to systematize and regulate species in tandem with other differences. The scientific triumph of the Linnaean “sexual system” bears a mixed legacy in feminist plant writing, complicated further by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) writers’ creative engagements with the unevenly felt consequences of professionalized plant science. Empowered by critical plant studies, an interdisciplinary formation that rises to the ethical challenges of emergent scientific affirmations of vegetal sentience, literature and literary criticism are reexamining these histories and modeling alternatives. In the early 21st century with less than a fraction of 1 percent of the remaining old growth under conservation protection worldwide, plants appear as never before in fragile and contested communal terrains, overshadowed by people and other animals, all of whose existence depends on ongoing botanical adaptation.