copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
Plants are our friends. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to breathe--or eat. Only they can convert carbon dioxide and water into chemical energy (sugars and starch) using ultraviolet energy (sunlight). Without them, all animal, including human, life would die. Actually, without them, there would be no life to live or die.
Plants themselves, in fact, are food. Their ripened ovaries are hard to beat when one craves a sweet and succulent treat. Plants are also the source of hundreds of products that we sometimes take for granted, but, without which, we wouldn’t live nearly as well as we’re accustomed to do: paper, lumber, fabrics, fuel, medicines, plastics, dyes, soaps, paints, shampoos, perfumes, and a host of others. Without plants, men wouldn’t be able to bribe women into forgiving them or put them in the mood for romance with the gift of a dozen roses or a bouquet of flowers, either, and, of course, gardens would be rather colorless affairs.
So, what’s so horrible about plants?
Like people, many are good eggs, but, to torture a metaphor, there are a few bad apples among them as well. In most cases, the horrible plants are poisonous. Some are horrible for other reasons, though.
Let’s start with the poisonous ones. According to Live Science, the “Top 10 Poisonous Plants,” in descending order, are:
In no particular order, for pets, these are the five deadliest plants:
- Castor bean plant
- Sago palm
The stinging tree is an interesting plant. Indigenous to tropical rainforests, it has thick, hair-like structures on its leaves and stems that, when brushed against, deliver a painful sting. The tips of the leaves and stems penetrate the skin, in which they break off, releasing a poisonous irritant, the effect of which may last for months. There’s no antidote. However, stick insects, weevils, chrisom lid beetles, and even opossums enjoy the taste of them.
In horror fiction, plants can be dangerous--or even deadly--even when they’re not poisonous. In Dean Koontz’s The Taking, demons use a hellish fungus to help to prepare the earth for conquest. In Stephen King’s “The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verril” segment of Creepshow, an extraterrestrial fertilizer, delivered by the courtesy of a meteorite, causes an alien fungus to overrun everything--and everyone--in its past, Jordy Verril (played by King himself) included. In Seed People, alien seeds turn humans into zombies. The campy Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) has mutated tomatoes turning into mad killers.
As “Man-eating Plants”points out out, no carnivorous plant is large enough to threaten humans. These plants’ largest victim, according to this article, was a rat that, dead, was found, partially digested, inside a pitcher plant. However, “Man-eating Plants” suggests that the legends of such plants as the one in Little Shop of Horrors might have been inspired by an actual plant, the Amorphophallus titanum, or corpse flower, which is definitely not recommended for milady’s (or yours) bridal bouquet:
Amorphophallus titanum, which is said to be the biggest, smelliest flower in the world, looks like something that could eat a human being. When it blooms it can reach at height over nine feet in height and smells like a mixture of rotting flesh and excrement. . . .
. . . Although the Amorphophallus titanum looks a lot like you would imagine a man-eating plant to look like, and it even smells like somebody is dead inside, it is not carnivorous.
As horrible as man-eating plants might be (were they to exist), intelligent plants might be even more appalling. For a long time, scientists maintained that animals are not able to reason, and philosophers have always excluded them from such abilities, defining humans alone as “thinking reeds” or res cogitans. If animals were to be denied anything more than sentience, plants certainly weren’t likely to be considered potential Nobel laureates any time soon.
However, this bias may be changing. If Professor Stefano Mancuso has anything to say about the issue, it may not be long before plants are his tenured colleagues. He operates the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology (LINV) near Florence, Italy, where he hopes to demonstrate that plants are not only intelligent, but are also capable of solving problems. According to Mancuso, “If you define intelligence as the capacity to solve problems, plants have a lot to teach us. Not only are they ‘smart’ in how they grow, adapt and thrive, [but] they [also] do it without neuroses. Intelligence isn't only about having a brain.”
According to “Smarty Plants: Inside the World’s Only Plant-Intelligence Lab,” the laboratory is exploring a variety of research topics: “In addition to studies on the effects of music on vineyards, the center's researchers have also published papers on gravity sensing, plant synapses and long-distance signal transmission in trees.”
Plants have been found to be able to distinguish between siblings and strangers, and, perhaps as xenophobic as people, among them, sap apparently is thicker than water. According to Live Science’s “Plants Recognize Siblings”: “Plants can recognize when they are potted with their siblings or with strangers. . . . When strangers share a pot, they develop a competitive streak, but siblings are more considerate of each other.”
In science fiction, plants have demonstrated intelligence for years. As far back as Dante and Virgil, humans dreamed of communing with greenery. However, the desirability of doing so, at least as far as William Hope Hodgson is concerned, might be questionable. In “The Lands of Lonesomeness” chapter of his novel, The Boats of Glen Caring, “evil trees are prone to wrap their branches round the unwary traveller,” and “human souls are somehow sucked into the trees and then beckon for more to join them.”
Intelligent plants also betray evil designs on humans in Murray Leinster’s “Proxima Centauri,” Clark Ashton Smith’s “Seedling of Mars,” and Raymond Z. Gallun’s “Seeds of the Dusk.” Bizarre, threatening plants also appear in H. G. Wells’ short story, “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.”
Until the discovery of the euglena, scientists believed that there was a hard and fast differences between plants and animals. The main difference was that the former could photosynthesize, while the latter could not. The discovery of the euglena changed this view. Like animals, they can move under their own power, by means of a flailing flagellum, engulf and ingest food using a “phagotrophic. . . apparatus,” “sense light using a red pigmented eyespot,” and change color to match their red or green environment. The euglena also has chloroplasts that enable it to do what only plants can do--photosynthesize. So is it a plant or an animal? Neither--and both. It’s a euglena!
Swamp Thing could be the lowly euglena, writ large. He’s a humanoid vegetable or, if one prefers, a vegetative humanoid, who lives in a swamp and, in the 1982 movie named for him, dated Adrienne Barbeau (a. k. a. Alice Cable).
There’s something else eerie about plants. They’re quiet. They loom. They seem to wait, if not to lurk. They appear to be biding their time, awaiting their chance. To do what? We don’t want to know. What may go on inside those leafy branches and green stems? We don’t even want to guess. Plants are so different from us that, in their majestic, grand silence and their seeming indifference to us, they seem, at times, as when the wind is in the treetops, to whisper of plans that may be not as cool and green and comforting as their stoic postures suggest they are.
If science fiction and horror stories featuring plant-monsters teach us anything worthwhile, it’s to listen to Mom and eat our vegetables--before they eat us!
“Everyday Horrors: Plants” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured on Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.