Fantasy Pet Peeve #347










Made-up bullshit names for plants and herbs. 

Unless in your world you get milk from a “milk-beast” you don’t put people to sleep with “sleep-weed.” There are dozens of real plants that actually put people to sleep:
Lemon balm
Passion Flower
Virgin’s bower
Lady’s slipper
I found them after 0.35 seconds of googling.

(herbologists out there: I know there are probably some mistakes there. Feel free to correct me)

On one hand, yeah, I get it that it’s nice to learn about something real in fantasy books.

But on the other hand…I am NEVER going to throw real herbs into my stories. Not unless I know it’ll be near-impossible for a child to overdose. Not unless I know I can take time (without an editor removing it) to explain how to safely prepare these tisanes.

Food preparations are one of the most easily made “fan creations” you can have rise out of a book series, since everyone has food on hand or can run out to a store to buy it, or go outside to try to forage it (if they see the internet says they have it living wild in their area). And you really, REALLY don’t want to accidentally lead someone who is young, or who just doesn’t know shit about cooking or chemistry or foraging, down a path where they poison themselves trying to make something. And that’s not even touching on foraging and “false friends”, where a plant might look one way in your area and be safe to eat, but might be poisonous elsewhere in the world where a similar-looking plant is found. There’s a mushroom in the united states that looks similar to an edible variety in Asia. As I understand it, a lot of poisonings occur among immigrants to the US from the region that has the friendly, edible type of mushrooms because they think the US variety is just as safe to eat, and it’s not. I would hate, hate, hate to set up a situation like that as an author, by assuming that a friendly, edible plant in my backyard doesn’t have false-friends elsewhere in the world.

J. K. Rowling handled this by making her potion ingredients fake or improbable to use. She could have had Snape talking about deadly nightshade, but he’s introduced talking about bezoars.  Bezoars are from an animal’s stomach–hard to get, and gross.

Patrick Rothfuss handled it by making sure the dangers of fucking chemistry up were very firmly highlighted.

Unless I have a lot of time and place to safely explain how to use a plant, I’m absolutely going to go the “safe” route (”cheap” route to some of you) of using made-up herbs. I’d rather people be irritated with me being cheap or having weak worldbuilding than finding out some reader went and made themselves ill or dead because they trusted that information from my work was complete or correct.

Sure, some or all of those in the list above might be perfectly safe with no poison lookalikes around. I drink Rooibos tea myself–although I’ve never gotten sleepy from it.

But I’m just not educated enough about plants–even after having lurked on several sites online for months–to take a chance in my writing, since it’s just not me that’ll be taking a chance, but possibly readers who assume I know what the fuck I’m talking about. (When I might not!)

A very interesting response. I admit I hadn’t thought of the dangers of realistic herbology, but you’re right, especially for children’s books.

I think there’s a more elegant solution than just making up a name, though. Say “a certain herb” rather than the specific plant’s name and you’re fine. Or smudge the details. 

Steven King does something similar with the crimes in his book—describing hotwiring a car in great detail but getting some things intentionally wrong so you can’t go out and do it.

In the vein of ladydomini’s response, I’d favor made-up herb names for an additional medical reason – even if something is super-safe or fairly benign in terms of side effect profiles, people generally don’t take these things in a vacuum, and you can never, ever cover drug-herb interactions in a fantasy world. (You can’t stop and say “Aeryn used St. John’s wort to help her mood, but wouldn’t have if she’d been on SSRIs like Prozac because of the risk of serotonin syndrome, or if she was on birth control, certain HIV meds, transplant drugs…”)

But there’s a second reason why you might choose to make up names, and that’s etymology. (It’s also why I picked St. John’s wort instead of going with one of the above herbs.) Because if you’re in a fantasy world where there are neither saints nor dudes named John, St. John’s wort doesn’t make a lot of sense to name-check, and referring to hypericum perforatum wouldn’t be any better. That’s not going to come up as *much,* but it’s definitely another reason.

(A third might be that you want an herb that has fantasy-world properties – something that doesn’t exist in the real world. Granted, you could randomly say valerian has magic-nullifying powers, but you might want magical plants for a magical reason – or maybe you want a plant with a pharmacological profile that doesn’t exist in the real world. I’m thinking here of ASOIAF’s moon tea and the tansy plant – it’s apparently both a very effective contraceptive and an abortifacient.)

So, yeah, this aspect of fantasy has never bothered me – I’d be more bothered by seeing real-world herbs incorrectly used, especially given the potential for RL trouble. (I guess whether you’d want your healers to be super non-specific or to say “I used tansy and athelas” is a matter of preference at that point; given the abundance of made-up names in the rest of fantasy, made-up herbs don’t bother me.)

Given how many times I read stories like that as a kid and tried to recreate ‘potions’ in the backyard….yeah I’m glad a lot of them were made-up names because me being a clever kid, I would have gone looking. Especially if I’d had the internet. Unless it’s like a practical, safe, real-world use (like “Annie put aloe leaves on her burn to help it heal” or “Margaret drank ginger and hibiscus tea to help her get over a cold”), I’d not include it. Made-up herbs work nicely and less chance of too-clever kids getting Ideas that could be a problem later. 

Hell, the side effects make this a valid concern even with ‘harmless’ innocent ones. Did you know for instance that only SOME hibiscus flowers are edible for humans? Or that parts of Dandelion or Aloe if consumed can be a diuretic – which can be dangerous if one is dehydrated? Even aspirin (or ‘willow bark’ if we’re going with old-school herbs) can be dangerous to the wrong person – it happens to be a blood thinner, which is sometimes good if you are having a heart attack, but not so good (i.e. potentially dangerous) if you are menstruating, hemophiliac, bleeding or anemic. 

I’d actually urge similar caution with crystals and rocks btw; some stones cannot be safely exposed to sweaty skin or water or heat or what not, because they produce unsafe chemical reactions under the wrong circumstances. 

as a former dumbass kid that had to be stopped from drinking poison nettle tea after reading a YA wiccan flavored book, 

please. Use fake names of plants. 

This is the kind of thing I would never even have thought of, but it’s a really interesting and valid concern.

i have indeed thought of it, and would like to propose a solution to satisfy both parties:

use made up plants, but put some effort into designing them.

don’t call it ‘sleep-weed’, call it ‘slugbane’ or ‘ketterling’s false poppy’ or ‘somniflora’ or ‘purple fretleaf’. give it a name that sounds like a real plant name. problem fucking solved.


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