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date: 17 June 2024

Plants and Literaturefree

Plants and Literaturefree

  • Susan McHughSusan McHughUniversity of New England


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.


  • Fiction
  • Film, TV, and Media
  • Literary Theory
  • Non-Fiction and Life Writing
  • Poetry
  • Cultural Studies

Plants and literature are both generic terms for highly varied and evolving referents. While plants permeate literary texts across all periods and cultures, their significance to literary critics remains uneven. In the works of the Bard alone, literary glossaries and lexicons from Henry Ellacombe’s Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare (1878) through Gerit Quealy and Sumie Haegawa Collins’s Botanical Shakespeare (2017) register longstanding interest in the mentions, motifs, and of course plant-based potions used as plot devices. Apart from utilitarian objects, however, representing the lives of plants—ethically, culturally, politically, historically, philosophically, and textually—has proven more challenging to literary writers, a problem that fuels a fast-growing subfield of scholarship in the 21st century.

All accounts of why plants are moving from the margins to the center of literary study point to the cross-pollinations made possible through interdisciplinary studies. William Shakespeare’s poisons notwithstanding, the rise of medical humanities has renewed interest in rhetorical and philological approaches to plants, particularly in classical and medieval scholarship, where substantial bodies of herbal-healing literature survive. In literary animal studies, the very different claim that plants are the final frontier of post-anthropocentric critique stirs controversy. Still more ambivalence surrounds the languishing of botanical interests following Lawrence Buell’s turn-of-the-21st-century heralding of a definitive “environmental turn in literary-critical studies,” sparking debates about how literary writing creates, disseminates, and subverts ecocritical perspectives on plants as agentive beings.1 Wider-ranging studies of the intertwining histories of literature and plant science are revealing the radical potentials that stem from the intersections of botanical knowledges and forms of expressing them, along with their proliferations and contestations through histories of settler colonialism. Elaborating the uneven consequences for people and plants, recent feminist, antiracist, and decolonial writing illustrates unique possibilities for literature in critical plant studies, a field gaining legitimacy through questioning how plants came to be seen as inert, insensate, and unintelligent.

Critical plant studies aims to inspire more comprehensive and sympathetic accounts of the implications of growing new evidence of the complex intra- and inter-species subterranean, biochemical, and airborne communications shared among photosynthesizing and saprophagous life forms. Philosopher Michael Marder elaborates how “plant thinking” is never simply a question of vegetal capacities: what humans think about plants can be distorted by metaphysical biases that compound our difficulties with perceiving vegetal sentience. Marder draws together insights from phenomenology, botany, and population ecology to model ways of ruminating that “neither treat . . . plants as passive objects (or quasi-mechanical structures relegated to the background of animal life) nor accept . . . the Western metaphysical equation of subjectivity with autonomy, unity, individuality, personhood or will.”2 His prescient framing of critical plant studies as “an interdisciplinary dialogue, whereby philosophy and literature would learn from each other to think about, imagine, and describe vegetal life with critical awareness, conceptual rigor, and ethical sensitivity” drives inquiry into how literary workspaces have always been sites of struggle to articulate what is distinctive to botanical being-in-the-world.3 Thus plant life as such no longer marks a literary-historical limit but rather becomes an inspiration for representing and recovering ethically driven plant-human relations in literature.

Getting deeper into the weeds of literary history highlights the profoundly different genealogies of critical plant studies and ecosophy. Following Marder’s lead by tracking leading-edge science, Molly Mahood’s The Poet as Botanist (2008) traces how poets’ seemingly endless fascination with flowers changed with the publication of Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linné)’s Systema Naturae (1735), which simultaneously revolutionized the study of botany and language. Through “the close relationship of poetry and plant science” that “held ever since Linnaeus,” Mahood charts how organismal botany rose to fame. But, by the mid-20th century, the popularity of botany became imperiled by increasingly technical interests through the rise of “biochemistry and molecular biology, . . . return[ing only] through the back door as plant ecology.”4 A comparative view of literary history casts even more doubt on the inevitable or inherent ecocritical appeal of plants.

The systematic collection and study of plants empowered by European colonialism led not just to more imaginative literary writing through science but also established mutual influences. Best known for literary works like The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe authored two publications that share the title Metamorphose der Pflanzen (Metamorphosis of Plants)—the first a botanical treatise (1790) and the next an elegiac poem (1798)—that together reflect how literary and scientific imaginations were mutually transformed by the Linnaean emphasis on shared morphological traits. Discovering how every tree is encapsulated by a meristem of embryonic tissue, which inscribes every experience of their lives in their own wood, is tantamount to recognizing how morphology makes of plants “a metaphor of metaphors”: open-ended, receptive, wondrous.5 Goethe contemporary and friend Alexander von Humboldt’s even more widely influential Essai sur le Géographie des Plantes (1804) is credited as a foundational text of ecology and biogeography, and also as an aesthetically innovative textual interweaving of images and words.6 Such works also mark profound transitions away from plants as objects of the classifying imagination and toward vegetal beings’ capacities for endless growth, inciting revolutionary thinking about questions of representation, broadly writ.

In the same period, Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden (1791) more directly synthesizes scientific and literary writing by binding together two poems in a single volume: “The Economy of Vegetation,” geared to introduce a general readership to a range of scientific questions of the day; and “The Loves of the Plants” (initially published in 1789), which capitalized on Linnaeus’s sexually explicit language to advance evolutionary thinking about human-plant continuities. Yet the complex potentials and limits of women’s affiliations with plants also contributed to the book’s sensational response, as Sam George elaborates in Botany, Sexuality, and Women’s Writing, 1760–1830: From Modest Shoot to Forward Plant (2007), which tracks the influence of the Linnaean sexual system on science and literature by focusing on the pivotal role of Darwin’s book in British women’s education. Through scenes pandering to misogynist (some also racist) fantasies, “The Loves of the Plants” pointedly challenged established assumptions that botany and floriculture were respectable foci for a lady’s education; girls’ and women’s rare point of access to scientific training consequently came under threat. The influence of Darwin’s poem on literary production was no less profound, particularly for women writers, who were both inspired by and scrutinized for engaging with the vitality of female plant parts.7 Art imitating life, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (2013) provides a fictional meditation on how 18th- and 19th-century Euro-American women studying plants such as Jane Colden, Jeanne Baret, and Marianne North overcame obstacles to make science history as botanical researchers and explorers.

New materialist approaches to literary criticism are also helping to make literature’s material origins in plant life more apparent today. Through a reading of Abraham Cowley’s poem “Written in Juice of Lemmon” (1656), Julian Yates’s Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression (2017) swerves the materiality of media toward self-reflexivity, here in the form of secret writing in citrus juice on paper revealed through delicate application of flame. Cowley’s perspective highlights how “plants funded and framed acts of inscription,” according to Yates: “literally (and figuratively) growing, living out their own forms of being in and by and through their use as media that bound human expression,” the medium that is the message “fruiting as it appears” reveals the fruit as symbiotically inhabiting literary expression.8 But can literary expressions also trace the perspectives of literal plants?

To move beyond deadlocked debates about whether or not plants can embody subjectivity or assert agency, critics are reorienting discussions of plant speech toward more precise literary preoccupations with plant language and writing. Patrícia Vieira advocates for building more directly on the extensive emerging knowledges of biochemical signaling and other forms of plant communication by centering literary interpretation on “phytographia,” or “imprints left in texts themselves by plants.”9 Starting with 17th-century German mystic Jakob Böhme’s theory that “God’s signatures” are apparent in all things, Vieira dismantles hierarchic views of nonhuman languages still more decisively via Jacques Derrida’s concept of “arche-writing,” or a type of writing that precedes the subjugation of writing as a vehicle of speech and meaning. As a mode of plant inscription, phytographia enables deconstructions of the contradictions peculiar to plants and literature, and more.10 Vieira’s studies of Amazonian plants’ inscriptions on human lives in Colombian and more recently Brazilian and Portuguese modernist “novels of the jungle” further suggest how attempts to represent the vegetal voices of the rainforest give rise to literary creations that resist superimpositions of human stories, along with their silencing through settler colonialism.11

Cross-cultural comparisons of historical representations of plants are destabilizing distinctions between naturalist and literary writing.12 Such discussions provide just a sample of how literature and literary studies alike are themselves profoundly changed by fostering what Joela Jacobs conceptualizes as “phytopoetics,” an aesthetics of plant life that upends especially passive stereotyping by attending to the ways in which plants’ life-giving and life-taking capacities are not transcended by so much as reasserted in literary writing, particularly about what she terms “vegetal eroticism” and “vegetal violence.”13 The phytopoetic charge of the nascent subfield of literary and cultural plant studies is leading to recoveries and reconsiderations of how writers have taken up the creative challenges of representing plants on their own terms, often through distinct themes and genres.

The materiality of plants in the instruments, surfaces, and everyday lives of literary authors is readily apparent from ancient traditions worldwide, and anthropomorphized vegetal characters are among the oldest staples of folklore. By the 20th century, their refusal to keep still in the objectifying gaze makes botanical beings ripe for retooling as threats, particularly as mass menaces or plant horrors. In contrast, rare individual plants, particularly trees, trend more sympathetic, especially when cast as bearing witnesses to atrocities, in feminist, antiracist, queer, and postcolonial literatures. Mixed communities of plants anchor more ambivalent literary histories, flagged by forests gradually changing from sites of satire or refuge to spooky, if not downright dangerous, zones for vulnerable people. Plants play more direct roles in representations of agricultural communities in flux, prompting bucolic reflections in critiques of urbanization, and devastating visions of manufactured food shortages and other crises that follow from industrialization and consolidation of farming.

As sites of hybridization, chemical manipulation, and genetic modification of plants, laboratories link together many of these scenes and more: bridging the commercialization of plant life and the growing prominence of plant horror, creative representations of technical control also extend connections forged between literature and science in the European Enlightenment that again include botanical capacities for resistance.14 The divergent perspectives of botanical scientists from others with vested interests in plant life—whether horticulturalists, plant developers, or hobbyists—are signaled by literary representations of plant life changing through natural and especially artificial selection in sites closer to home. Whether in gardens, greenhouses, or simply pots, vegetal silence begins to emerge as a sign of exclusions by as well as within human communities. Through the rising popularity of botanically oriented memoirs at the turn of the 21st century, writers as different as novelist Jamaica Kincaid and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer are troubling histories of colonialism, enslavement, genocide, and extinction by finding ways of reconnecting with their heritage cultures, lands, languages, and losses through plants. These budding interests in ethically writing plant life indicate how engagements with botanical theory and horticultural practice continue to enable explorations of new frontiers in literary studies.

Plant Matter

The material presences of plants in writing make possible a play of sign and referent from literature’s inception. Carved with a blunt reed, the remaining fragments of the oldest literary text, The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 bce), include a story of the hero’s discovery and loss of a plant that would bring immortality. From ancient times, the plant matter of literary musing has included bark, bast, and other writing surfaces sourced from such diverse species as papyrus, flax, and fig trees. Of the hundreds of plants represented in the oldest Chinese literature, the mulberry is by far the most mentioned in Shijing or Classic of Poetry (1100–700 bce). Writing long before the invention of paper and the lucrative trade in raw silk for textiles, its writers recognized mulberry trees as cultivated in plantations for the purpose of feeding the insect source of their primary writing surface: silk, usually used together with lacquer sourced in tree sap, was preferred before the invention of paper there.15 Although virtually any plant can be used for papermaking, the exceptional durability of cotton-pulp paper makes it the standard for archiving literature, and along with it enduring material connections to the history of slavery. The detail in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987) that the slave Sethe is tasked with making the ink used by her tormentor Schoolteacher likewise serves as a subtle reminder of the forced labor behind another one of Euro-Americans’ main writing materials from the 14th through the 19th centuries: iron gall ink, sourced from oak trees.16

Human dependence on plants in general and obligations to trees in particular are familiar themes within ancient literatures, for instance in the Sanskrit tradition extolling the virtues of the mystical Forest Queen or “mother of all sylvan things” in the Rigveda (c. 1500 bce) and outlining rules for cohabitating with plants in the Puranas (c. 400–600).17 To their sacred knowledges, symbolic meanings, and medicinal properties is added a mnemonic device in the early medieval Irish alphabet Ogham, to each letter of which is ascribed the name of a kind of tree. The world tree Yggdrassil of the Old Norse sagas exemplifies how individual plants even occasionally figure as powerful presences within the oldest texts.

Whether via metaphor, simile, or personification, the vegetal has long served literary authors as a ready ruse by which to say things that are unspeakable in human terms. In the gardener’s discussion scene in Shakespeare’s Richard II (1595), menial servants are overheard speaking of fruiting trees, herbs, ornamentals, and weeds in postlapsarian disarray, but immediately understood by the queen to be actually discussing the failures of the titular king to manage his subjects. Throughout the play, the overtaxing of lands and people alike are figured through botanical vocabularies that clarify the stakes of the king’s poor cultivation of all within his island nation, rather, “our sea-walled garden” (3.4.42), according to the gardener’s servant.18 Settler nations’ dependence on coordinated cultivation of the land with the most nutritive plants for table and livestock may not immediately spring to playgoers’ minds, but the metaphor only works because the questions of stewardship raised in the castle garden are recognized as applying as much to statesmanship as they do to horticulture.19

In contrast, botanical rhetorics in modern literatures trend toward rendering plant life unimportant, most obviously through dead vegetal metaphors. Bearing associations with Aphrodite and the Virgin Mary, the flower figured in Robert Burns’s famous opening line “O my Luve’s like a red rose” (1794) reflects the Romanticist enlistment of botanical subjects as vehicles for expressing strictly human emotions. Over a century later, Gertrude Stein’s trademark quip “A rose is a rose is a rose” will become a preeminent illustration of the modernist literary counter-valuation of literal language (the line itself echoing Stein’s 1913 poem “Sacred Emily”). However unthinkable literature may be without plant matter, vegetal life appears also to be a limit case for the properly literary subject, a condition amplified by the rising popularity of fictional vegetal monstrosities in modernity.

Plant Horror

Examples from contemporary realistic fiction around the world—including Ibrahim al-Koni’s The Bleeding of the Stone (2002), Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker (2006), and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007)—figure vegetal violence ironically, through the silent suffering of human characters who are victimized for being vegans or vegetarians. It’s a new twist on villainous vegetal representations in literary history, where botanical beings overwhelmingly assert themselves to the detriment of humans. And, when literary plants go bad, they do so often as mindless, monstrous menaces, in examples as diverse as the heroine’s poisonous vegetal “sisters” in Nathanael Hawthorne’s “Rappacini’s Daughter” (1844) and the mysteriously manipulative growth that haunts Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014)—examples that also use botanical figures to explore the demonization of female desire. While both leave open the question of plant culpability in the deaths of humans, there are far more literary plants that appear to crave human flesh, in “inscrutable silence and [with] an implacable strangeness.”20

The roots of plant horror reach back to carnivorous variations on legends of the zoophyte known as the borametz, or vegetable lamb of Tartary, said in some variations to consume all who venture within its soil-rooted range.21 Eighteenth-century European reports of the Javanese upas tree having a lethal poison that seeps through the ground and travels airborne (along the lines of the film The Happening, 2008) were only scientifically debunked by the mid-19th century, by which time the dream of killer plants had become firmly rooted in the gothic imaginary.22 Ranging wider away from colonial centers, the passive floral poisoner of Hawthorne’s story morphs into a more active threat.23 As early as 1874, a report began to circulate about an “atrocious cannibal tree” fed by tribal sacrifice in Madagascar, later outed as the cryptobotanical brainchild of fiction writer Edmund Spencer.24 Published worldwide as a news story, its momentum is attributable to the coincidental publication of Charles Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants (1875), which confirms that some plants can have humanlike digestive mechanisms. Although Darwin clarifies that such plants are native to all continents except Antarctica, racialized fantasies of jungle-dwelling peoples’ proximities to carnivorous plants persist, for instance, in Scott Smith’s novel (2006) and film (2008) The Ruins, which portrays white Euro-American travelers falling victim to a parasitic vine at an overgrown temple tended by Maya people.

Written with his son Francis, Darwin’s later book The Power of Movement in Plants (1880) advanced further the hypothesis that plants demonstrate cognition, based on evidence that they act according to their appetites, a potential that becomes decidedly sinister in the literary imagination. Dramatic thrills and chills move with botanical specimens into the centers of empire through flesh-eating plants depicted as individuals collected and eventually bred by horticulturalist men, including the titular specimens of H. G. Wells’s “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” (1894) and Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Reluctant Orchid” (1954). Such stories also satirize the 19th-century eruption of “orchidelirium,” a variant on the Dutch Golden Age “tulipmania,” in which plant-collecting passions tip over into self-destructive obsessions.25 Charles Addams’s Cleopatra, a member of the fictitious African Strangler species and the prize of fictional Addams-family-matriarch Mortitia’s exotic collection of deadly plants, is a prominent indicator of how the pattern of racial and ethnic coding of botanical killers persists well into the 20th century. That said, named individuals like Audrey II of Little Shop of Horrors (1960, 1986) fame, along with the carnivorous titular character of Annie Proulx’s “The Sagebrush Kid” (2008), however deadly, are likewise plants deliberately nourished by humans as symbionts, even family.

Audrey II’s alien origins and monstrous proportions also reflect the ways in which the trope of vegetal attacks on humans develops through Cold War discourses of invasion. In the 20th century, fictions-turned-films like The Body Snatchers (1955) / Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956; 1978) hearken back to radical traditions in botanical writing that challenge human dominance even while gaining in popular currency. The spectacle of ambulatory alien plants intentionally poisoning people in John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) inspired a radio series (1960), a film (1962), a TV series (1981), even a sequel in the form of Simon Clark’s novel The Night of the Triffids (2001)—a phenomenon that gains greater significance amid the struggle to advance nonanthropocentric ecological thinking. Even as debates grow about the literary values of botanical resistance—whether it figures fights for ecology, or against sexual, ethnic, or racial inequality—the tendency to interpret plants as stand-ins for humans in the history of literary criticism helps to explain why the need to read them on their own terms becomes felt so strongly.

Plant People

Apart from genre fiction, human identification with or as plants relegates characters to the textual margins in the modern literary canon, but that has not always been the case. Whether as gatherers and gardeners, farmers and gleaners, nomads and Natives, folks who raise and prepare plants to provide basic necessities like food, shelter, clothing, and medicine largely have done so at the edges of the canon. Yet how humans relate to plants appears to be guided by particular themes and locations in their literary representation.

A “notoriously enigmatic” staple of medieval European church décor, the “green man” carvings—typically a head fantastically entwined in, sometimes even emanating, greenery—have no corresponding representation in texts prior to or during their creation, leaving them open to interpretation as violent or menacing.26 But, in pointed contrast to plant-horror’s tendency to depict plants as a mass menace, the foliate head usually appears in singular form, and so might be seen instead as a link to ancient literary representations of plants as motifs of personhood, kinship, and subjectivity.27 BIPOC and feminist literary critics demonstrate how traditional ecological knowledges hinge on attending to plants as people in ancient stories. Paula Gunn Allen’s The Sacred Hoop (1986) shows how translating human-plant in terms of strictly human relations warps Native American storytelling traditions of the “yellow woman” central to her Keres culture; representing their main grain maize, yellow woman’s stories instill agricultural knowledge together with the traditionally gynocentric values of Keres people. Whether understood to be a staple of folklore in ancient cultures or a folklorist invention of modern paganism, the green man’s stories, like those of the yellow woman, foster a sense of wonder at the seasonal rebirth characteristic of deciduous trees and other nonevergreen plants, inviting comparison with fictional tricksters likewise associated with greenery. In UK literary traditions, Sir Gawain’s green-skinned Green Knight, Sherwood Forest’s green-clad bandit Robin Hood, even Kensington Gardens’s Peter Pan all trouble figures of authority, both by trespassing on lands marked as royal and by asserting pre-Christian ideologies.

Various interpretations open to the titular character of Kingsley Amis’s novel The Green Man (1969)—a “tree monster” / “tree devil,” a psychological projection of the main character, or just the pub of the same name that figures prominently in the story—add to the sense that shared plant-human being appears deeply unsettling in modernity, even in fantastical settings. Contemporary sf writers in the United States invoke this figure still more directly to develop the narrative potentials of human-plant reciprocity for social and environmental critique. Both Robert Jordan’s series The Wheel of Time (1990–2013) and Gene Wolfe’s series The Book of the New Sun (1980–1983) explicitly label as “the green man” an individual character who has special powers to manipulate plant life. In Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World Is Forest (1972), decolonial becomes also ecological justice when the Athsheans, green-furred hominids who evolved in symbiosis with their forests, rise up against their enslavement by Earthlings and other aliens who disparage them as “little green men,” and effectively halt the invaders’ planetary-scale deforestation.28

Comics paint in broader strokes how ecoconsciousness is being advanced by such characters. The 1963 introduction of the character Plantman, who stimulates plants to do his evil bidding, in Strange Tales and later X-Men lofts a dark narrative of Cold War science, combining plants, men, and chemicals that gives way to greener visions within the ensuing decade. Later comic representations of especially plant hybridity extend instead the ecological sensibility popularized by Rachel Carson’s bestselling Silent Spring (1962). The two most successful examples of ecological comics, Swamp Thing and Man-Thing, were first issued in 1972 and feature plant-human hybrids evolving through their respective narratives to become stewards of their swamps, even of “all realities” in the case of Man-Thing. What makes these new green men stories pivotal is their positioning of the human as a connective node within (not, like Plantman, a manipulator above and beyond) highly contingent multispecies communities, namely the microcommunities of their swamps. Perhaps most indicative of evolving eco-consciousness are the bad-to-good transformations of two more characters: Poison Ivy, introduced in 1966 as a supervillain botanist and biochemist, and the Plant Master (later Floronic Man), introduced in 1962 as a Plantman-like botanical manipulator, except also an alien exiled from an interdimensional world called Floria. Each was initially conceived as instrumentally using plants or plant qualities. Pivotally drawn together with Swamp Thing in Black Orchid (1989), they become repositioned to be recast in ensuing stories, respectively, as eco-warrior antiheroine and straightforward superhero.

The different but entangled trajectories of Poison Ivy and Floronic Man also show how conflicted relations proceed from differently gendered representations of shared human-plant embodiment. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 ce) casts a long shadow over transformations of especially women and girls into flowering plants and trees in Western literary traditions. The story of Baucis and Philemon—who show hospitality to strangers later revealed to be gods in disguise, and therefore are rewarded by deathbed transformation to intertwining oak and linden trees—is referenced and repeated faithfully by the likes of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Powers along with Jean de la Fontaine, Jonathan Swift, Nikolai Gogol, Andre Breton, and Max Frisch to idealize heterosexual coupling. Not so is Daphne’s more abrupt change into a laurel to be saved from impending rape by Apollo, who then crowns himself with her wood; it is the rare literary reboot like Will Boast’s Daphne (2018) that resists her reduction to the vegetal/female object used by the animal/male superior force.29 More typical are interpretations, for instance, of the title character of The Vegetarian as becoming silent, sessile, and otherwise plant-like by the end of the story, through the course of which she has already been depicted as brutally attacked, drugged, and ultimately institutionalized, indicating how the dangers of becoming plant-identified persist for some kinds of people.

The risks appear mitigated for those presenting as males voicing their own vegetal transformations. Walt Whitman’s willing himself to the reincarnating “grass of graves” is celebrated as one of the poet’s many gestures toward radical democracy in Leaves of Grass (1855). In Kobo Abe’s Kangaru Noto (1977, translated as Kangaroo Notebook, 1991), the protagonist’s discovery of radish sprouts growing on his legs initiates a surreal medical journey to what he recognizes as Hell. Reflecting Abe’s formative years as a settler in Japanese colonial Manchuria and crediting the influence of Lewis Carroll, the novel meanders surrealistically, through “different things, creatures, and space-times, dreamings and stories.”30 Only his story takes a uniquely weird turn along the way as he discovers that snacking on them makes him no longer able to stomach any sprouts except those grown on his own body. His growing sense of mutualism with his sprouts provides a tenuous connection back to another dimension of Ovid’s many tree-people, namely, their sense of more long-lived plants as benevolent personalities. It also provides the pretext for Le Guin’s “Olders” (1996), another transformation tale of a man, in this case in a coma, changing into the tree form in which he will join the grove of his likewise life-extended ancestors.

Trees for the Forest

“I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree” begins the most famous work by Joyce Kilmer, and it concludes: “Poems are made by fools like me / But only God can make a tree.” A strangely monotheist rewriting of the dendrolatry or tree-worship common to many peoples (including Kilmer’s Celtic ancestors), the poem’s framing of the tree exclusively as an aesthetic inspiration contrasts its roots in sacred texts.31 Whether anchoring concepts of life, knowledge, or immortality, particular trees are central to folklore, mythology, and religion—the Biblical tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Bodhi Tree or Buddha’s tree of awakening, and again Yggdrasil, the cosmically central Old Norse world tree from whom the god Odin hangs himself. Passionate paeans to trees also can be found in the works of William Blake, Rabindranath Tagore, Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda, Robert Macfarlane, and Mary Oliver—so prevalent, indeed, across cultures and periods that a comprehensive list might be endless—but individual connections like Odin’s prove more portentous.

In feminist fiction, the wavering of greenery between forefront and background roles can be traced in between two of Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s stories. “The Giant Wisteria” (1891), under which is uncovered the secret grave of a daughter murdered by her mother for having an illegitimate child, seems complicitous in the cover-up, if not an active menace. Whereas, in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), the heroine narrating the spectacular backfire of bedrest to cure her mental illness ultimately envisions herself literally fading into the vegetal design papering the room. An inverse trajectory—from décor to live trees—unfolds within The Vegetarian, in the subplot of an artist obsessed with painting and filming floral designs on skin, who has an affair with his model Yeong-hye, who is also his sister-in-law and the character who becomes vegetative through the course of the story. Tellingly, after accidentally viewing a film of them having sex, the betrayed wife/sister In-hye ends the novel by staring at actual trees, “as if for an answer.”32

Trees take on still more special roles as witnesses to atrocities. In representations of the US history of lynching, individual trees loom ominously. While Billie Holiday’s 1939 sound recording powerfully popularized the metaphorical rendering of “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” in Abel Meeropol’s 1937 song “Strange Fruit,” literary writers of preceding decades imagined the trees themselves as narrators or witnesses. Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak” (1913) describes a lynching from the perspective of a tree, recounting the story of a man hung by a mob from its bough.33 A generation later, Richard Wright’s “Between the World and Me” (1935) reduces the tree to “a charred stump of a sapling,” though likewise capable of responding to the injustice only silently, by “pointing a blunt finger accusingly at the sky.”

Contemporary fictional representations of trees as living testaments to lynching include Jesmyn Ward’s Sing the Unburied, Sing (2017), in which the arboreal witness is imagined as a gathering place for ghosts of African American victims of many more racially motivated killings, too. The spectacle of Native Americans murdered by hanging haunts the fateful cottonwood grove of Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Almanac of the Dead (1991). Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves (2008) imagines as well the transgenerational trauma following a particular historical incident in which three Native Americans—including one child—were hung by white-settler vigilantes, showing how the tree becomes not just an instrument of racialized violence but also ultimately a gathering place for the victims’ surviving tribespeople, alongside the ghosts of passenger pigeons, by then driven to extinction by the same killers. An early example also based on a true story, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s 1844 murder mystery Die Judenbusch (The Jew’s Beech) uses the supernatural more forcefully to bring to justice the killer Friedrich, who by the end is found hanging from the tree under which his victim Aaron was found, and subsequently into the bark of which Friedrich’s fate cryptically had already been carved in Hebrew.

The idea that individual trees become mediators of social and personal tragedies is prevalent in many more contemporary novels that cast them realistically as significant presences. A historic tree, the Splittereiche (Splinter Oak) that survived the traumatic February 13–14, 1945 bombing of Dresden, serves in Marcel Beyer’s Kaltenberg (2012) as both living witness and connection to the narrator’s parents, who were lost that night; unlike the mass graves where they may be buried, visiting the tree enables him to conjure up memories of them.34 Identifying unique potentials for postcolonial critique, Wendy Woodward compares representations of individual “arboreal beings” in several southern African fictions, including Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness (2000), Niq Mhlongo’s title short story in his collection Soweto, under the Apricot Tree (2018), and Mia Couto’s Under the Frangipani (2001), to show how they “foreground the presence of trees in their narratives, all implicitly critiquing a ‘culture’ which neglects to acknowledge a tree in its full significance.”35 Her further relation of these individuals to a grove that serves a similar function in Beverley Rycroft’s A Slim Green Silence (2015) suggests an even greater literary force for trees represented en masse. Just as they provide the material backbone of so many vegetal communities, trees appear to be the most dwelt-upon botanical subject in literature, if not always appreciated as such.

Forest for the Trees

“A culture is no better than its woods” is the concluding line to W. H. Auden’s poem “Buccolics, II, Woods (for Nicholas Nabokov)” (1955), which begins “Sylvan meant savage in those primal woods.” If Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992) establishes that as far back as Gilgamesh “forests represent the quintessence of what lies beyond the walls of the city,” then Auden’s poem exposes how they come to serve as a modern poetic measure of humanity’s failure to prove ourselves civilized.36

Forests have long served as transformative zones in literary traditions of cultures rooted in arboreal regions of the world, whether as sites for carnivalesque inversion, like Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, or the unsolvable murder mystery played out among the bamboo of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “In a Grove” (1922), a story best known outside Japan through the classic film adaptation Rashomon (1950). Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596), Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest (1791), all the versions before and since of the story captured in the Brothers Grimm’s “Little Red Riding Hood” (1812), even Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999) position forests as places of intrigue and, especially for women and girls, danger. The trope of the deep, dark woods—whether as an uncanny place for humans, the home of monsters, or itself an active threat—has deep roots in specific, purportedly haunted woods, a staple especially of the English countryside, and consequently has strong attraction for eco-gothic writers today.37

Literary history identifies more nuanced roles played by forests in particular periods and cultures. Albrecht Classen’s The Forest in Medieval German Literature (2015) examines canonical texts like the Nibelungenlied (c. 1200) alongside lesser-known poetry and prose to complicate perceptions of forests as uniformly inhospitable, let alone as horror-filled, by showing how they guide characters’ development and renewal. Jeffrey Theis’s Writing the Forest in Early Modern England (2009) likewise reads Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton together with literature of the revolution like James Howell’s Dendrologia, Dordona’s Grave, or the Vocall Forest (1640) to show how literary and other writers expressed early concerns about forest law and deforestation. Citing Ojibwe traditional knowledges along with William Bradford, James Fenimore Cooper, John Muir, and Jim Harrison, among others, John Knott’s Imagining the Forest: Narratives of Michigan and the Upper Midwest (2012) uses literary and other stories of one North American region from the colonial period to the present to chart the emergence of two competing metaphors of the forest: as antithetical to civilization, in need of subjugation; and as cathedral, to be revered and protected.

More deeply mixing these impulses, a minor literary tradition imagines communities of arboreal beings as figures for social satire and eventually ecocriticism. Ludvig Holberg’s Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum (Niels Klim’s Underground Travels, 1741) imagines animate and articulate trees explaining their utopian world to a human visitor and suggests how literary representations of forests ground profound critiques within European Enlightenment thinking. These elements recur across the literary history of sf, most prominently perhaps with J. R. R. Tolkien’s old, wise, and otherwise treelike Ents of the Lord of the Rings series (1954–1955).38 Similar creatures include Edgar Rice Burroughs’s otherworldly Plant Men of Barsoom in his Martian fiction series (1912–1943), as well as the sentient humanoid-cactus-like Cactacae of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series (2000–2005).

The poor treatment of plants by people is a common complaint among literary treelike beings, though largely voiced from the sidelines. Much rarer are literary works narrated from the perspective of a tree like LeGuin’s “The Direction of the Road” (1974), in this case a stately oak who disdains apples in orchards as domesticated and thereby cognitively diminished “herd trees.” While casting doubt on the human character Olivia’s claim to hear individual trees speaking to her, Powers’s The Overstory (2018) further explodes this perspective on a global scale, imagining other humans tuning in less directly to arboreal chemical conversations circulating worldwide. Updating readers on the latest scientific findings as well as the cascading social and environmental consequences of replacing old-growth forests with tree plantations for capital gain, The Overstory as a whole complicates the picture through a self-reflexive critique of literature itself as obscuring the ethics of human-plant relations. Whether as e-books or print-copy “tree books,” bestsellers like The Overstory represent large-scale consumptions of forest products and other environmental threats, raising questions about how even sympathetic literary authors contribute to the slide of uses into abuses of plant life.


With vast monocrop plantings as a backdrop, literature primarily records the human toll of the intensification of agriculture made possible through settler colonialism, which not only has led to widespread diminishment and extinction of wild plant species but also to the movement and cultivation of plant species worldwide for the profit of few and through the victimization of many. Set on a sugar and cotton plantation in the southern United States, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life among the Lowly (1852) has long been touted as an example of literature’s power to enact social change, a legacy overshadowed by its trade in poisonous stereotypes of black people.39 Attending to the intertwined diminishment of human and nonhuman lives moves critics more generally to reframe the Anthropocene as the “Plantationocene” era, indicating how, even amid critiques of exploitation, hope can take root in literary representations of humans tending to continuities with plants.

Although the dramas of animal husbandry dominate the farm novel tradition, plants gain greater significance in examples with more direct historical grounding in the imperiled rights of horticulturalists. Dīnabandhu Mitra’s influential play Nil Darpan (The Indigo Mirror, 1860) recounts a revolt that began with poor Bengali farmers refusing to plant indigo under exploitative conditions imposed by British Raj planters; as the first play staged by the National Theater in Kolkata, it is credited with advancing decolonial politics. At many levels, Charles Chesnutt’s short story “The Goophered Grapevine” (1899) identifies African American slaves and freemen with the titular vine, all together victimized by the greed of plantation owners and entrepreneurial northerners who replace them. Mixed reception histories call attention to how peoples’ phytophilia or attachments to plants can complicate the indigenous/invasive hostilities long attributed to texts like Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)’s Out of Africa (1937), a white woman’s memoir about starting and losing a coffee plantation in what later became Kenya.40 In the US, decolonial politics take a backseat through novels like Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903)—the first two books of his unfinished Epic of Wheat trilogy—along with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and John Nicholls’s The Milagro Beanfield War (1974), all of which concern the dangers of corporate interests to local smallholders who grow, harvest, and market crop plants.

Scientific and technological developments to optimize plant propagation inspire fantastic literary satire. Projecting a nightmare scenario of the Green Revolution avant la lettre, Ward Moore’s sf classic Greener Than You Think (1947) focuses on a suburban Californian lawn that, after mistakenly being treated with a chemical fertilizer that enables plants to turn anything into nitrogen, takes over the world. An imaginative departure from flesh-eating plant horrors, Moore’s grass makes people feel alienated from their own planet, confounds morphological resemblances, and ultimately overwhelms anthropocentrist fantasies.41 Albeit in contemporary realist style, Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation (2003) tells a similar tale of plant alteration through science leading to unintended, global-scale changes. Shadowing the true story of how genetically modified potatoes became the first gene-altered plant to be widely grown for and then withdrawn from commercial markets, Ozeki draws different people’s stories—including those of farmers, organic activists, fast food workers, public relations specialists, and, perhaps most importantly, teachers—together with stories of potatoes’ multifarious reproductive and cross-cultural significances. Unlike Moore’s story, Ozeki’s ends with a sense of human-plant solidarity. For, nestled within the biodiversity desert of its Midwestern US monocrop-farmland setting is a green oasis: an elderly Japanese war bride’s wildly chaotic garden plot, filled with an incredible mix of vegetables, flowers, and more, which serves as a stage for reconciling fractured friendships and family relations amid the fight against corporate takeovers.42

Garden, Greenhouse, and Potted Plants

Gardens function to bring people together for nourishment and healing, but not evenly, in life as in literature. Edenic qualities attributed to flower gardens in English country-house poems like Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” (1651) naturalize the aristocratic status of the patrons whose praises they sing. Such associations persist in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1910), where sickly children of the rich unlock what becomes for them the titular paradise, but only after they get a servant boy to restore it to order. Burnett herself fits a pattern of modern writers who draw inspiration from their own experiences of directing staff to build and manage extravagant country manor house gardens, alongside Beverley Nichols, the author of garden-writing hits like Down the Garden Path (1932), whose effete horticultural enthusiasms in turn prove ripe for immediate lampooning in W. C. Sellar and R. W. Yeatman’s Garden Rubbish and Other Country Bumps (1936). Literary representations of grand-scale gardening all the more clearly devolve into signs of losing the common touch amid landscapes transformed by widespread suffering.

With Vita Sackville-West’s grand gardens at Sissinghurst Castle long since transformed into a popular UK tourist attraction, her musing in “The Garden” (1946), “Small pleasures must correct great tragedies, / Therefore of gardens in the midst of war / I boldly tell,” seems worlds away from the more practical Victory Gardens promoted in plays of the time like Carey Miller’s Hoe! Hoe! Vitamin (1944), written as a practical intervention into the wartime starvation and malnutrition of the British populace.43 That said, nostalgia persists for a sense that plant-tending provides a respite from the world, whether literally a safe space away from the hoi polloi in the case of Jerzy Kocinzki’s Chance, the idiot-savant gardener in Being There (1970), or a psychological respite from threats of murder and mayhem for the title character in The Constant Gardener, the bestselling 2001 John Le Carré novel and feature film based on a true story.

As Ozeki’s novel indicates, gardens are not just refuges from social struggles but also places for securing intimate ties amid them. Rosemary Manning’s The Chinese Garden (1962) features characters discovering a secreted and transformative space at a girls’ boarding school, only there it becomes a place for coming to terms with lesbian desire. The titular plant of Shani Mootoo’s novel Cereus Blooms at Night (1996), a species of cactus colloquially known as the “pass-along plant,” is an exotic transplant to a Caribbean garden that connects an intergenerational, queer, and racially mixed network of people who share and transplant cuttings from it, one that anchors a self-sustaining sense of fleeting, paradisiacal, “roving queer island garden” spaces for those who are otherwise set to be crushed by “the postemancipation plantation machine of the West Indies.”44 Tan Twan Eng’s historical novel The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) makes the creation and restoration of a formal Japanese garden an impetus for healing from the loss of loved ones to the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during World War II. Eng’s aesthetic logic is clarified by a curious historical footnote: Japanese follow Chinese garden designs by favoring particular plant species praised in Classical Chinese literature, the point being circularly to create places of contemplation that in turn inspire more literary and artistic production.

That plants’ medicinal properties are central to folkways around the world lends gardens persistent dramatic value. Lacking affordable health care in contemporary small-town Mississippi, the African American protagonists of Ward’s novel tend in their gardens the makings of herbal remedies and charms depicted as easing, even saving, their loved ones’ lives. Such characters have many counterparts in earlier US literature, including Sarah Orne Jewett’s Eurowhite Mrs. Todd and Linda Hogan’s Native American Aunt Moon, both introduced as quirky botanophiles but later revealed to be powerful members of communities dependent on their herbalist expertise. Proulx’s 2016 novel Barkskins offers ironic commentary on this pattern through the character Sapotista, the great-great-great-great granddaughter of Mi’kmaq Mari, who was famed in the contact era for her North Woods herbal expertise. Uneasily inheriting Mari’s legacy, Sapotista herself earns a PhD in botany and exhorts students to turn their focus from “the old medicine plants [that] grew in a different world” before the forests were destroyed, in order to work as restoration ecologists to try to create conditions in which forest plants can regain their healing powers in the 20th century.45

That such characters are predominantly women has roots in the practical needs of female embodiment, according to historian Londa Schiebinger, who points to works by Giovanni Boccacio, Ben Jonson, and Mary Wollstonecraft to show how “popular imaginative literature sheds light on early modern women’s use of abortifacients” like savin.46 Genre fictions make much of associations of herbalism more explicitly with the dark arts, hence herbology featuring as a major discipline of study at J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry across the Harry Potter series of novels and films. The predominance of female poisoners in murder mysteries—notably those of Agatha Christie, who herself trained as an herbalist before becoming a writer—directly speaks to a period in which the professionalization of pharmacology was leveraged by men’s relentless discrediting of female herbologists.47

Given the preponderance of female authors and characters in literary representations of herbalism, it is notable that so many more male authors and characters are linked together as plant-based drug users and abusers. Debates continue about whether and how literary depictions glamorize or critique psychoactive experiences with derivatives of poppies, coca, marijuana, and more. Stories as diverse as Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), M. Ageyev (Mark Levi)’s Roman s Kokainum (Novel with Cocaine, 1934), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Irvine Welch’s Trainspotting (1993), and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) become controversial also amid the unevenly experienced dangers of illicit drug trade for people of different classes, ethnicities, races, and nationalities. T. C. Boyle’s Budding Prospects: A Pastoral (1984) is an outlier in this tradition for its depiction of a young man’s drug use leading to his involvement in cultivation of a marijuana farm, and with a happy ending at that.

The introduction of greenhouses highlights how literature teems with the dramas of human and other animal lives, among which botanical subjects devolve to proverbial wallflowers in lockstep with their colonial exploitation for commercial markets. The faddish florist flowers and parlor flower stands heralding the Georgian era come to the fore at the end of Jane Austen’s last novel Persuasion (1818), when the star-crossed protagonists’ mutual “admir[ation of] a fine display of greenhouse plants” provides a ruse for rekindling their love affair.48 Victorian lovers gain a secreted space of luxury by escaping to the home conservatory, an architectural novelty that is itself a sign of conspicuous consumption in Charlotte Yongue’s novel The Daisy Chain, or Aspirations: A Family Chronicle (1856).49 Fueling a vogue for greenhouses open to the eventually wearying public, the scene of literary hothouse love devolves to a cliché by the Edwardian era, as illustrated by an assignation at “the usual palm tree,” or “the second palm tree on the left” in Oscar Wilde’s play An Ideal Husband (1895).50 Raymond Chandler’s iconic noir novel The Big Sleep (1939) flags the monstrous turn in the 20th century. An early scene features Philip Marlowe’s meeting in the greenhouse with General Sternwood, whose name along with his description as a “bloodless,” cold-sensitive, paraplegic, old, dying man aligns with his cramped plants, ominously described as “a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.” But even Sternwood hates them, particularly the orchids, declaring: “They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.” Instrumentally or decoratively filling in the scenery of human dramas, the literary destiny of such vegetal presences verges from unsympathetic to detested.

No living beings populate literary history more inconspicuously than houseplants, yet their growing presence in 20th-century contexts appears distinctly to their detriment. Identifying with a potted plant signals that a character is pathetic, sympathizing with its sufferings perverse, and truly caring for them pathological. Far from the hothouse and parlor displays, lonesome Fanny in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) is promised a puppy and sometimes lent a horse but ultimately makes daily life in her cold rooms bearable by bringing in potted plants. By the 20th century, fictions feature self-isolated and privileged white men who, although they claim to care about plants, only act to torture, kill, or even just leave plants unpotted to die of root exposure. The protagonists of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), Flannery O’Connor’s “The Geranium” (1946), and Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America (1965) all fit this bill.

Twenty-first-century examples suggest that this pattern might be changing, as the sense of growing relations between people and particular houseplants indicates how they can provide a basis for reconceptualizing difference or otherness. Extremely socially isolated and abused characters are identified with plants only in ways that highlight systemic social problems in Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah (2014) and Haruki Murakami’s Ichi-Kyu-Hachi-Yon (2009–2010), translated as 1Q84 (2011). Both stories explicitly address the spread of and limits to settler cultures, respectively, in Africa and Asia, suggesting how enlisting potted plants in these investigations can open new avenues for social modeling and critique beyond Euro-American traditions.51

Botanical Memoirs

Naturalist writing on forests tracks growing ecological sensibilities, and bleeds into botanical memoir amid the fraught histories of local peoples’ fights for environmental justice. While plant writing peppers all the work of Henry Thoreau, The Maine Woods (1864) most clearly articulates a vision of living off forested land, even while expressing sympathy with the peoples whose lifeways and lands alike were even then obviously being endangered by commercial interests, particularly loggers. (Telescoped across the Great North Woods into Canada, a similar but fictional story snowballs across generations, continents, and cultural perspectives in Barkskins.) The intersections of genres also prove useful for articulating the imbrication of scientific and literary writing about plants. Known mostly for his popular bird books, biologist Bernd Heinrich revisits a slice of the Maine woods in a likewise lyrical memoir, The Trees in My Forest (1998), to share his sense and sensibilities of arboreal being, and to detail recent scientific findings that affirm them.

Although not memoirs per se, botanical writing by authors with extensive experience working with plants, often as scientists, enjoys enduring popularity. Recognized more for her skills in plant propagation than her poetry in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson’s writing is filled with references to species that she cultivated in her gardens, meadow, and conservatory, many of which are preserved in a herbarium that she created as a schoolgirl.52 In the 21st century, forester Peter Wohlleben’s runaway bestseller Das geheime Leben der Bäume: Was sie fühlen, wie sie kommunizieren; Die Entdeckung einer verborgenen Welt (The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries from a Secret World, 2015) indicates public receptivity to perceptions of trees as social creatures whose needs intersect with those of humans. In Powers’s The Overstory, the fictional dendrologist Patricia Westerford’s similarly sensational The Secret Forest, which is the lone point of connection across the sprawling novel’s diverse cast, appears to have been modeled after the life of biologist Susanne Simard. Life imitating art, Simard’s own Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (2021) is a story that blends personal and scientific discovery, more like biologist David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (2012) and The Songs of Trees: Stories of Nature’s Great Connectors (2017) in weaving together autobiographical and nature writing for the purpose of advancing understanding of plants as communicative and social creatures.

A key intertext in Ozeki’s novel, The Harvest of the Years (1927)—the autobiography of plant developer Luther Burbank, breeder of the world’s most-planted potato, the Burbank russet, among other popular cultivars—is an early example of a hybrid science- and life-writing genre that nearly a century later brings popular audiences to important critiques of science as well. Paleobotanist Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science, and Love (2016) details the grant-writing mill, laboratory turf wars, and institution-hopping expectations that condition plant science in her experience as a successful academic, with special attention to the sexism she endured. Similarly science-skeptical autobiographies of descendants of enslaved and colonized peoples instead focus on field work to suggest that intentionally living and working with live plants provides a bulwark against cultural and biological endangerment alike. Focusing on the fragile dependencies on native plant species helps Robin Wall Kimmerer to articulate her journey to becoming an ethnobotanist and an engaged citizen of the Potowatomi Nation in Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003) and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2014). Though an ornithologist like Heinrich, J. Drew Lanham details in The Home Place: A Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (2016) the fruits and vegetables of his parents’ truck garden, the borderland battles of weeds and flowers in his grandmother’s garden, even the endangered wild plants native to the home of this African American family, all of which provide a sense of connectedness that proves crucial here, too, to the successful career of a BIPOC natural scientist.

At the turn of the 21st century, creative writers experiment with plants to develop critical reflections on themselves as well. Adding a new dimension to his reputation as a poet and journalist, James Fenton harnesses his hobbyist experience with garden economy in A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed (2001), which organizes by garden plant varieties a thought experiment in what to grow if limited just to seed. Sumana Roy’s likewise formally experimental How I Became a Tree (2017) mixes memoir, literary history, spiritual philosophies, and botanical research to explore how trees inspire her to pursue more satisfying ways of being human. Poets Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s collaboratively authored Lace and Pyrite (2014) began as a commitment to weekly epistolary exchanges of poems over the course of a year, and the thematic centering on their respective obsessions with cultivating food and flowers is reflected in the title of an early excerpt, “Letters from Two Gardens” (2012). More recently Gay’s The Book of Delights, a genre-defying year in the life as told through short, daily reflections on something delightful, clarify further how an African American man finds much-needed pleasure in plants and plant writing amid the ongoing terrors highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Experimental life writing about plants is an emerging genre with enormous potential for enriching the broader efforts of decolonizing and restorative justice projects as well. Jamaica Kincaid reflects in her experimental autobiography My Garden (Book): (1999) on how her gardening practices weave together various relationships with plants that are personal, historical, and transformative. Building on the family-gardening-memoir elements of My Brother (1997), a story ostensibly about her sibling’s AIDS-complicated death, Kincaid explains how she began gardening after already becoming a popularly and critically acclaimed writer of the black diaspora only to find among plants a different content and form for contesting the limits of authorial identity, for refusing the master narratives imposed on “me and all who look like me,” in Kincaid’s phrasing.53 A project that began as a mixed-race adoptee’s search for her own roots, Catherine McKinley’s Indigo: In Search of the Color that Seduced the World (2011) more deliberately digs into the histories of peoples and plant species along with plant knowledges similarly to question how they became endangered or lost in the African diaspora, and why creatively adapting genres like autobiography are a necessary part of their recovery and restoration.

Discussion of the Literature

The tendency of literary scholars inspired by critical plant studies to highlight modern and contemporary literature suggests a tremendous opportunity to track plant thinking in older texts. The oldest examples of scholarship on plants and literature have emerged through classical and medieval studies of herbalism as a nexus of botanical, cultural, and medical knowledges. An early example that illustrates the importance of etymology to understanding ancient botany and medicine is Reginald Campbell Thompson’s The Assyrian Herbal: A Monograph on the Assyrian Vegetable Drugs. A century later, studies like Rebecca Armstrong’s Vergil’s Green Thoughts: Plants, Humans, and the Divine trace the porous boundaries of science and nature writing within the canon of classical studies by attending to their representations of “the contrast and intersection of rational and non-rational reactions to plants: the emotional and superstitious associations they evoke, together with scientific and pragmatic understandings of their properties.”54 Attending not only to how texts were originally produced but also their subsequent disseminations, preservations, and sometimes distortions clarifies further the relevance of the history of plant writing to literary studies. Focused on a case in which “a once vital medical text was transformed into a literary curiosity,” Anne Van Arsdall’s Medieval Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine uses translation history to clarify the adaptation of ancient Roman knowledge to British medieval contexts, resulting in immediate enrichments, yet also eventual diminutions, of these knowledges across Europe and the Americas.55

Widening scholarly focus beyond Euro-American examples is a persistent challenge largely taken up by BIPOC scholars and creative writers. More ordinary representations, for instance, of planting watermelon seeds help Gloria Anzaldúa to pinpoint her own mestiza status in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, at once celebrating her queer and Anglo-Latinx-Native American hybridity and expressing concern for its fragility deep in the home of her farming family, Hidalgo County in Texas, which despite great agricultural and cultural richness perennially ranks among the economically poorest parts of the US.56 In Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, gardening serves as a metaphor for her own “womanist” aesthetic (“with every color flower represented”) that, quite apart from any anxiety of influence, fosters appreciation for continuities across famous black women artists and writers along with her own mother’s lone aesthetic outlet, her flower garden.57 In contrast, the customary inattention to the literary histories marginalizing especially BIPOC women’s perspectives compounds the ableist offensiveness affixed to writers’ “plant blindness” and attempts to remedy it alike in literary criticism.

In Plants and Literature: Critical Plant Studies, Randy Laist attributes the dearth of “plant-based narratives” to a broader “defoliation of the cultural imagination” that follows from the withering “botanical vocabulary” of urban-industrialized peoples.58 The predominant approach in literary criticism instead has favored what John Charles Ryan, in Plants in Contemporary Poetry: Ecocriticism and the Botanical Imagination, terms “botanical criticism,” a tradition of interpreting representations of vegetal life only to marginalize any sense of plants as having their own lifeworlds. As an alternative, Ryan outlines more verdant potentials in what he terms “phytocriticism,” which “assesses the extent to which vegetal dynamism figures into the shape of cultural productions,” and emphasizes the importance of botanical agency for ecocriticism.59 Patterns across poems interrogating perceptions of plants as bodies and souls, as signifiers of settings and agency, and ultimately as inspiration for melancholia and even hope gain special interest amid ever-increasing anthropogenic extinctions of untold species of flora along with the fauna dependent on them. However, Ryan’s application of his phytocritical approach exclusively to contemporary Anglophone poetry indicates that the question of “why now” may be easier to answer than “why look at literary plants in the first place.”

In the introduction to The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature, Ryan together with Monica Gagliano and Patricía Viera calls for a more specifically “phytocentric” approach to literary criticism that “seriously would regard the lives of plants in relation to humankind in terms that would look beyond the purely symbolic or [objective-correlative] dimensions of the vegetal.”60 However inadvertently, the handful of examples discussed in their volume’s “Literature” section indicate that such writing emerges sporadically, and only in post-1800 white people’s writing. Joela Jacobs and Isabel Kranz’s bilingual coedited special issue of Literatur für Leser charts a broader range of histories and cultural perspectives that enrich their central concept of “botanical poetics.”61 Though quite differently, these collections raise concerns about how genre, period, and cultural preferences create more obstacles than opportunities for studying plants and literature.

An earlier volume inspired by critical plant studies, Molly Mahood’s The Poet as Botanist samples a range of works by UK and US literary authors with formal scientific plant-related training and across the past 300 years.62 Sharing Ryan’s focus on poetry, Mahood extends a literary-critical pattern set by Charlotte Otten’s Environ’d with Eternity: God, Poems, and Plants in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England.63 Otten looks back still further to canonical early modern writers to trace how languages of flowers more specifically infuse theology with herbalism in British literature. That all three monographs separate and elevate botanical poetry in English over any other type of literature begs questions about how other literary forms and cultural traditions support still more plant-specific approaches, and for what purposes.64

Without mentioning critical plant studies, several 21st-century volumes concentrate on Linnaean-influenced writers who muddy the science-literature divide and highlight linkages of experimental botanical writing and feminist critique. Elaine Miller takes a philosophical approach to Goethe’s poetry in The Vegetative Soul: From Philosophy of Nature to Subjectivity in the Feminine, making the case that it culminates in philosopher Luce Irigaray’s efflorescent interpretive writing practice, exemplifying “plant-like reading.”65 Literary writers also find in plants inspiration to challenge the authority of analytic and experimental modes of inquiry in science, as again George’s Botany, Sexuality, and Women’s Writing, 1760–1830 likewise circles back to Erasmus Darwin in order to elaborate. Noting how the translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Letters on the Elements of Botany Addressed to a Lady (1785) was already “a surprise bestseller in England,” George explains how Darwin’s The Botanic Garden also inspired Wollstonecraft’s defense of botany against prudish reactions to Linnaean theories in her Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), which immediately sparked numerous botanically themed satires.66 Among the more lasting effects of the popular introduction of the Linnaean sexual system to the United Kingdom was the restriction of women’s access to botanical knowledges in favor of floriography—using flowers to send coded messages—which continues to be idealized through Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s bestselling 2011 chick-lit novel The Language of Flowers, published with a companion flower dictionary by Mandy Kirkby.67 On the plus side, according to George, The Botanic Garden also led immediately to the innovation of “a new genre of women’s writing: the botanical poem with scientific notes.”68 While most flowery-titled fictions today are nonbotanical romances, poet Molly Peacock’s experimental auto/biography The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, which circles around her own fascination with 18th-century artist Mary Delaney’s massive, late-life production of hundreds of botanically correct, mixed-media collage representations of flowers (today housed as the Flora Delanica collection in the British Museum), provides yet another example of how women writers continue making formal innovations while directly struggling with these histories.69

An enduring figure of the sublime, the blaue blume or “blue flower” introduced in Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg)’s unfinished novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen emerges in literary studies as the central symbol of German Romanticism.70 But cross-cultural readings of the Romantic period further trouble a coherent plant politics in literature and literary criticism, whether ecocritical, feminist, or otherwise. Theresa Kelley’s Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture compares literary, scientific, philosophical, and visual art texts from the United Kingdom and its colonies in India and the Caribbean in order to highlight how Romantic plant representations undermine hierarchical thinking, throwing anthropocentric certainties into turmoil. Considering the highly variable spellings and wordings of common names for the same plant species in John Clare’s poetry, for instance, Kelley finds evidence of no eco-warrior but rather “a poet whose poetics of place, and especially of plants,” reacted against the doubled assault on place-based knowledge and language that was posed by Linnaeus’s systematization of standard plant names.71 Her chapter on women’s plant writing of the period includes examples echoing Darwin, debating Goethe, and—notably in public disagreements between Wollstonecraft and similarly prominent, radical writer Anna Barbauld—conflicting with each other in their uncertain challenges to poisonous plantlike characterizations of femininity. Kelley’s approach complements earlier single-author studies that chart changing attitudes toward and interpretations of the significance of plants within the period, for instance, within John Keats’s oeuvre toward embracing floral imagery in ways that complicate received notions of sex and desire.72

Intriguingly, a broader survey that cuts across cultures and periods further problematizes attempts to position literary writing as simply popularizing scientific or ethical understandings of plant life. Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari’s Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction explicitly rejects Marder’s plant ethics as an imposition of human onto vegetal concerns, one that risks obscuring the important insight to which literary writing gives voice: how little we matter from plants’ perspectives. Charting convergences of botanical facts and fictions from the Enlightenment to the present, they make the case that select examples from literature, science, philosophy, and film constitute a minor tradition of “radical botany, in which plants are not just objects of manipulation but participants in the effort to imagine new worlds and to envision new futures.”73 Compelled by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s famous injunction to “follow the plants”—and consequently to model not only treelike hierarchies but also tuberlike “rhizomatic” or lateral structures—Meeker and Szabari are more openly hostile to ecocritical traditions that posit plants at best as handmaidens to Romanticist visions of nature as a mirror to the human mind, as well as to animal studies, which they see as perpetuating anthropocentric bias.74 Meeker and Szabari instead locate the origins of radical botany in the writing of 17th-century French libertins érudits (libertine scholars). Fanciful philosophical fictions by Cyrano de Bergerac and botanical writings of contemporary Guy de La Brosse (most famous today for having created the royal medicinal herb garden that became Paris’s Jardin des Plantes) tease out a common theme of representing plants as percipient and libidinal that cuts across French science fact and fiction at the outset and connects a broad range of subsequent Euro-American literary developments.

If, as Meeker and Szabari assert, “plants draw us in (in their strangeness) and exceed our social and ecological categories” only to “undo us as individuals and as part of an ecosystem,” then it seems necessary to ask: for whom are we writing how plant being becomes radicalized?75

Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas marks a frenzied era of plant movement around the globe as well as scientific knowledges and the development of systems to classify them, but less attention has been paid to how these developments also involve particular patterns in the representation of plant life, significantly including the deliberate curation of ignorance.76 Reflecting on the same 400-years-and-more history—only foregrounding the colonial and postcolonial legacies of the enforced movements, renamings, erasures, and other violations of people alongside plants—Kincaid’s My Garden (Book): raises the question, what are nonwhite authors supposed to do with a story like this? An intriguing answer emerges through plant forms like Sargasso weed, a kind of seaweed that uniquely travels the routes and writings of the Black Atlantic as well as like much sea vegetation conceptually confounds tree, rhizome, and other land-based structures.77 The disciplinary confusion and genre-melding aspects of botanical writing indicate that radicalizing literary forms along with poetics is part of an answer that remains much in need of further development.

Further Reading

  • Aloi, Giovanni, ed. Why Look at Plants? The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2019.
  • Armstrong, Rebecca. Vergil’s Green Thoughts: Plants, Humans, and the Divine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Butcher, Daisy, ed. Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic. London: British Library, 2019.
  • Gagliano, Monica, John C. Ryan, and Patrícia Vieira, eds. The Language of Plants: Philosophy, Science, Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.
  • George, Sam. Botany, Sexuality, and Women’s Writing, 1760–1830: From Modest Shoot to Forward Plant. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007.
  • Keetley, Dawn, and Angela Tenga, eds. Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film. London: Brill, 2016.
  • Kelley, Theresa. Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
  • Kincaid, Jamaica. My Garden (Book):. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1999.
  • Laist, Randy, ed. Plants and Literature: Critical Plant Studies. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.
  • Mahood, Molly. The Poet as Botanist. Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press, 2008.
  • Marder, Michael. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
  • Meeker, Natania, and Antónia Szabari. Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.
  • Miller, Elaine. The Vegetative Soul: From Philosophy of Nature to Subjectivity in the Feminine. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002.
  • Otten, Charlotte. Environ’d with Eternity: God, Poems, and Plants in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1984.
  • Parker, Elizabeth. The Forest and the EcoGothic: The Deep Dark Woods in the Popular Imagination. London: Palgrave, 2020.
  • Ryan, John C. Forest Family: Australian Culture, Art, and Trees. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2018.
  • Ryan, John C. Plants in Contemporary Poetry: Ecocriticism and the Botanical Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • Theis, Jeffrey. Writing the Forest in Early Modern England: A Sylvan Pastoral Nation. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2009.
  • Van Arsdall, Anne. Medieval Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Yates, Julian. Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.


  • 1. Lawrence Buell, quoted in John C. Ryan, Plants in Contemporary Poetry: Ecocriticism and the Botanical Imagination (New York: Routledge, 2018), 7; and Erin James, “What the Plant Says: Plant Narrators in the Ecosocial Imaginary,” in The Language of Plants: Philosophy, Science, Literature, ed. Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan, and Patrícia Vieira (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 270.

  • 2. Michael Marder, “Plant Intentionality and the Phenomenological Framework of Plant Intelligence,” Plant Signaling and Behavior 7, no. 11 (2012): 1365–1372.

  • 3. Michael Marder, book series description, Critical Plant Studies.

  • 4. Molly Mahood, The Poet as Botanist (Cambridge, UK: University of Cambridge Press, 2008), 226–227.

  • 5. Matthew Battles, Tree (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 73; and Elaine Miller, The Vegetative Soul: From Philosophy of Nature to Subjectivity in the Feminine (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002), 11–12.

  • 6. Stephen T. Jackson, “Introduction: Humboldt, Ecology, and the Cosmos,” in Essay on the Geography of Plants, ed. Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, trans. Sylvie Romanowski (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009), viii; and Laura Søvsø Thomasen, “Showing and Telling: The Integrated Use of Literature and Images in the Works of Erasmus Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt,” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 42, no. 3 (2017): 27–240.

  • 7. Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 36–37.

  • 8. Julian Yates, Of Sheep, Oranges, and Yeast: A Multispecies Impression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 156.

  • 9. Patrícia Vieira, “Phytographia: Literature as Plant Writing,” Environmental Philosophy 12, no. 2 (2015): 208.

  • 10. Vieira, “Phytographia,” 215. Vieira elaborates, “Plants endlessly repeat parts of themselves by producing multiple leaves, flowers and fruits, all sharing similar traits but also displaying minuscule differences. Vegetal life and inscription are thus eminently graphic and could be understood as the paradigmatic example of arche-writing.”

  • 11. Vieira, “Phytographia,” 218. See also Vieira, “Phytofables: Tales of the Amazon,” Journal of Lusophone Studies 1, no. 2 (2016): 116–134.

  • 12. See for instance the argument for the literary merits of 17th-century Dutch colonial naturalist writing like Rumfius (Georg Rumf)’s Amboinsch Kruid-boek (Ambonese Herbal, 1741–1750) through comparison with US Romantic writers like Henry Thoreau in Eric Beekman, Troubled Pleasures: Dutch Colonial Literature from the East Indies, 1600–1950 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

  • 13. Joela Jacobs, “Phytopoetics: Upending the Passive Paradigm with Vegetal Violence and Eroticism,” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 5, no. 2 (2019): 1–18.

  • 14. Priscilla Wald, “Botanophobia: Fear of Plants in the Atomic Age,” Japanese Journal of American Studies 24 (2013): 7–27. See also Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari, “From the Century of the Pods to the Century of the Plants: Plant Horror, Politics, and Vegetal Ontology,” Discourse 34, no. 1 (2012): 32–58.

  • 15. Hsuan Keng, “Economic Plants of Ancient North China as Mentioned in Shih Ching (Book of Poetry),” Economic Botany 28, no. 4 (1974): 404–405.

  • 16. Nathan Snaza, Animate Literacies: Literature, Affect, and the Politics of Humanism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 15–16.

  • 17. Dhananjay Dwivedi, “The Importance of Plants as Depicted in Puranas,” Indian Journal of History of Science 52, no. 3 (2017): 251–274.

  • 18. Shakespeare, Richard II, ed. Anthony B. Dawson and Yachnin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Sarah Crover, “Gardening, Stewardship and Worn-Out Metaphors: Richard II and Justin Trudeau,” Early Modern Culture 13, no. 1 (2018): 152.

  • 19. Rebecca Laroche and Jennifer Munroe, “On a Bank of Rue: Or Material Ecofeminist Inquiry and the Garden of Richard II,” Shakespeare Studies 42 (2014): 43.

  • 20. Dawn Keetley, “Introduction: Six Theses on Plant Horror; Or, Why Are Plants So Horrifying,” in Plant Horror: The Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film, ed. Dawn Keetley and Angela Tenga (London: Palgrave, 2016), 1.

  • 21. Whitney Anne Trettien, “Plant -> Animal -> Book: Magnifying a Microhistory of Media Circuits,” Postmedieval 3, no. 1 (2012): 97.

  • 22. “The Upas Tree,” Scientific American 13, no. 47 (1858): 374.

  • 23. Daisy Butcher, “Introduction,” in Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic, ed. Daisy Butcher (London: British Library, 2019), 1.

  • 24. Edmund Spencer, “Wonderful Stories: The Man-Eating Tree,” New York World, April 26, 1874.

  • 25. Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (New York: Random House, 2011), 74. See also Anne Goldgar, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), which corrects modern misperceptions of this phenomenon in part through references to the works of contemporary poets and pamphleteers.

  • 26. Keetley, “Introduction,” 4.

  • 27. Matthew Hall, Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2011), 126. Hall points to Elias Lönnrot’s 1835 epic poem Kalevala, which is drawn from Karelian and Finnish folklore and mythology, as exemplifying “the most complete and interesting European accounts of plant personhood,” including trees that give voice to their own self-awareness, 129.

  • 28. Donna Haraway, “Sowing Worlds: A Seed Bag for Transforming with Earth Others,” in Beyond the Cyborg: Adventures with Donna Haraway, ed. Margaret Grebowicz and Helen Merrick (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 141.

  • 29. Miller, The Vegetative Soul, 5.

  • 30. Kaori Nagai, Imperial Beast Fables: Animals, Cosmopolitanism, and British Empire (New York: Palgrave, 2020), 148.

  • 31. Manuel Lina, The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge (Hudson, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2013), 6.

  • 32. Han Kang, The Vegetarian, trans. Debora Smith (London: Hogarth Press, 2016), 181.

  • 33. “The Direction of the Road” in Ursula Le Guin’s collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (New York: Harper and Row, 1974) is a rare short story for likewise being narrated from a tree’s perspective.

  • 34. Solvejg Nitzke, “Saxony’s Arboreal Curiosities, or: How to Root (Hi)Stories,” Botanical Letters, last modified June 16, 2020.

  • 35. Wendy Woodward, “Arboreal Being: Encounters with Trees in Recent Southern African Fiction,” Journal of Literary Studies 35, no. 4 (2019): 96.

  • 36. Robert Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 17.

  • 37. See Elizabeth Parker, The Forest and the EcoGothic: The Deep Dark Woods in the Popular Imagination (London: Palgrave, 2020).

  • 38. James Ignatius McNelis, “‘The Tree Took Me Up from the Ground and Carried Me Off’: A Source for Tolkien’s Ents in Ludvig Holberg’s Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground,” Tolkien Studies 3 (2006): 153.

  • 39. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Kwame Anthony Appiah,” in Africana: Arts and Letters; An A-to-Z Reference of Writers, Musicians, and Artists of the African American Experience (Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, 2005), 544.

  • 40. Peter Mortensen, “‘A Coffee-Plantation Is a Thing That Gets Hold of You and Does Not Let You Go’: Plant-Writing in Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa,” Journal of Literary Studies 35, no. 4 (2019): 28–45. A generation later and from a child’s perspective, Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood (1957) is more critical of British paternalism toward African peoples and the senseless slaughter of wild animals, but likewise fails to question the settler monopoly on coffee growing in the region.

  • 41. Vin Nardizi, “Greener,” in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green, ed. Jeffrey Cohen (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 155.

  • 42. Susan McHugh, “Flora, Not Fauna: GM Culture and Agriculture,” Literature and Medicine 26, no. 1 (2007): 25–54.

  • 43. See Char Miller, “In the Sweat of Our Brow: Citizenship in American Practice during WWII; Victory Gardens,” Journal of American Culture 26, no. 3 (2003): 395–409.

  • 44. Jill Casid, Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), xx–xxi.

  • 45. Annie Proulx, Barkskins (New York: Scribner, 2016), 696.

  • 46. Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 125.

  • 47. Alicia Carroll “‘Leaves and Berries’: Agatha Christie and the Herbal Revival,” Green Letters 22, no. 1 (2018): 20–30. Carroll argues, “Reading to historicize plants, advocate for them, and locate their presence in literature, then, may uncover debates long forgotten and reveal the extent to which stereotypes like the female poisoner and toxic plants conceal a hidden history of the pains—and pleasures—of ecological interdependence.”

  • 48. Deidre Lynch, “‘Young Ladies Are Delicate Plants’: Jane Austen and Greenhouse Romanticism,” ELH (English Literary History) 77, no. 3 (2010): 689–729.

  • 49. Catherine Harwood, Potted History: The Story of Plants in the Home (London: Frances Lincoln, 2007), 123.

  • 50. Oscar Wilde, Two Society Comedies: A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband, ed. Ian Small and Russell Jackson (New York: W. W. Norton, 1983), 253.

  • 51. Susan McHugh, “Houseplants as Fictional Subjects,” in Why Look at Plants? The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art, ed. Giovanni Aloi (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 191–194.

  • 52. Judith Farr with Louise Carter, The Gardens of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 3.

  • 53. Jamaica Kincaid, My Garden (Book): (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1999), 153, 166. Reading this book together with Kincaid’s likewise hybrid travel-garden-autobiographical volume Among Flowers (2005), Julietta Singh posits that the author/narrator’s overt self-contradictions is staging a productively fractured sense of postcolonial subjectivity, “a promise of stalling mastery” over plants and people alike in Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 161.

  • 54. Reginald Campbell Thompson, The Assyrian Herbal: A Monograph on the Assyrian Vegetable Drugs (London: Luzac, 1924); and Rebecca Armstrong, Vergil’s Green Thoughts: Plants, Humans, and the Divine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 2–3.

  • 55. Anne Van Arsdall, Medieval Remedies: The Old English Herbarium and Anglo-Saxon Medicine (New York: Routledge, 2002), xiii.

  • 56. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987).

  • 57. Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983).

  • 58. Randy Laist, “Introduction,” in Plants and Literature: Critical Plant Studies, ed. Randy Laist (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013), 10.

  • 59. Ryan, Plants in Contemporary Poetry, 15.

  • 60. Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan, and Patrícia Vieira, “Introduction,” The Language of Plants: Philosophy, Science, Literature, ed. Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan, and Patrícia Vieira (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), xi.

  • 61. Joela Jacobs and Isabel Kranz, eds., Das Literarische Leben der Pflanzen: Poetiken des Botanischen, special issue, Literatur für Leser 40, no. 2 (2017): 85–90.

  • 62. Mahood, Poet as Botanist.

  • 63. Charlotte Otten, Environ’d with Eternity: God, Poems, and Plants in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1984).

  • 64. Recently Ryan himself pursues the question of “what Latin American literature scholar Stephen F. White has described [as] ‘ethnobotanical poetry’ [or] . . . that which narrativises cultural knowledge of plants” in Ed. John Charles Ryan, “Editorial: Plant Poetics,” Plant Poetics, special issue, Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics 7, no. 1 (2020).

  • 65. Miller, The Vegetative Soul, 183.

  • 66. Sam George, Botany, Sexuality, and Women’s Writing, 1760–1830: From Modest Shoot to Forward Plant (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007), 6.

  • 67. Isabel Kranz, “The Language of Flowers in Popular Culture and Botany,” in The Language of Plants: Philosophy, Science, Literature, ed. Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan, and Patrícia Vieira (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 193; and Vanessa Diffenbaugh, The Language of Flowers (New York: Ballantine Books, 2011).

  • 68. George, Botany, Sexuality, 107.

  • 69. Isabel Kranz, “Slowly Unfolding: Molly Peacock Reads Mary Delaney’s Flowers,” Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture 50 (2020): 22; and Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010).

  • 70. Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), Heinrich von Ofterdingen (Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1802).

  • 71. Theresa Kelley, Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 14.

  • 72. Alan Bewell, “Keats’s Realm of Flora,” Studies in Romanticism 31, no. 1 (1992): 71.

  • 73. Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari, Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019), 2.

  • 74. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 11.

  • 75. Meeker and Szabari, Radical Botany, 201.

  • 76. Schiebinger, Plants and Empire, 4.

  • 77. Aaron Pinnix, “Sargassum in the Black Atlantic: Entanglement and the Abyss in Bearden, Walcott, and Philip,” Atlantic Studies 16, no. 4 (2019): 423.