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Saturday, February 19, 2011

It Came from the Garden

Earl waters some harmless flowers at Hole's Greenhouses in 2000. Photo by Akemi Matsubuchi.
Many years ago, I sold this article to The Old Farmer's Almanac Gardener's Companion. They sent me a cheque for US $400, but I never did see the published piece. Part of me wonders if they ever printed it. But hey, they bought it, so I guess that still counts as a sale - and a very lucrative one, considering it's a pretty light and fluffy piece that probably took me less than an hour to write.

It Came from the Garden!

There's nothing more idyllic than a summer afternoon spent with a book and a glass of lemonade, surrounded by your own jungle of colourful flowers, lush vines, and towering trees. But in the fantastic realms of science fiction, plants aren't always friends of humanity.

When Good Plants Go Bad
For millions of Canadians, plants are beautiful and benign, welcome residents of their gardens. But in popular culture, plants have often exhibited sinister, even blood-curdling traits. Just look at this brief list of killer plants in popular culture…

·         In the classic The Thing from Another World (1951, remade in 1982), scientists at an arctic research station discover a spaceship buried in the ice. They free the ship and its lone occupant, a Thing that turns out to be, according to the resident scientist, a form of sentient plant life. "Please doctor, I've got to ask this. It sounds like, well, just as though you're describing some form of super carrot," says Ned Scott, one of the men endangered by the beast. "An intellectual carrot. The mind boggles," he continues. Indeed.

·         In director Roger Corman's 1956 opus It Conquered the World, mankind is menaced by Zontar, an alien from Venus that fans have come to describe as the "space cucumber," for the being's resemblance to that vegetable.

·         Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, remade in 1978 and 1993), is perhaps the best known of the killer plant films, though the menace is far more subtle than other examples in the genre. Mysterious pods, drifting through outer space like pollen adrift on the wind, land and take root on Earth. The pods split open and grow, taking on the form of the nearest human being and eventually replacing them with cold, soulless, robotic duplicates.

·         Roger Corman had another hit with Little Shop of Horrors (1960, remade in 1986), the tale of well-meaning goof Seymour and his man-eating plant, Audrey Jr. Legend has it that Corman made this movie in just a few days, using sets and actors left over from another production that wrapped ahead of schedule.

·         "Beware the Triffids... they grow... know... walk... talk... stalk... and KILL!" So reads the tagline of The Day of the Triffids (1962), based on the classic novel by John Wyndham. After a streaking comet blinds most of the world's citizens, the Triffids, once domestic, ambulatory plants, rise up to shake off the chains of their oppressors.

·         Star Trek featured the mind-altering spore plants of Omicron Ceti III in "This Side of Paradise," the deadly dart-shooting plants of "The Apple," and the poisonous apples of "The Way to Eden," bitter fruit indeed for the hippie space travellers who searched for an Eden among the stars, only to discover death.

·         Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978) sees every tomato lover's worst fears realized as tomatoes grow to immense size and rampage through the streets.

Other plant related pop culture trivia:
·         Just before the Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), one of the eventual victims can be seen browsing through a seed catalogue.

·         Many gardeners are familiar with the insecticide Rotenone. Did you know that intrepid scientists used this chemical as a weapon against The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1958)?

·         Everyone remembers the anguish and horror in Charlton Heston's voice when he declares, at the end of Soylent Green (1973) that "Soylent Green is people!" In Harry Harrison's original novel, however, Soylent Green is nothing more sinister than a paste made of soybeans and lentils.

It's clear that in fiction, at least, gardening has a dark side. The plant as villain or monster is a relatively uncommon theme in storytelling, but it is none the less captivating for all that. While plants are usually harmless in real life (unless you poison yourself by eating something you shouldn't), they do have eerie qualities given the right circumstances. Unlike animals, for example, plants are silent, making no noise saved that caused by the wind rustling through their foliage. And they aren't mobile; they live and die rooted to one spot. Plants are, in fact, rather alien, compared to the human experience of living.

But when authors and filmmakers make plants into threats, they often to so by inverting their normal characteristics. In real life, plants are an absolutely essential component of the environment; without them, we could not survive. This is not necessarily the case in fiction. Normally immobile, monster plants often have the ability to move or use their vines like limbs. Silent in reality, monster plants may growl or slurp. What was once benign becomes an insidious, nightmarish threat. This perversion of the norm is what makes killer plants so horrifying; they are entirely outside real human experience.

One thing is certain—despite these imaginative horrors, gardening will remain a safe and enjoyable experience.

Sidebar: Villainous Vegetation, Fiendish Flora, and Heroic Herbs—Plants in Comic Books
One of the richest sources of plant-themed storytelling comes in the relatively new art form of comic books. Here's a short list of some plant-themed characters.

Swamp Thing
Transformed from a handsome scientist into a horrific plant-man, Alec Holland fights crime and protects the plant world as the hideous but heroic Swamp Thing.

Floronic Man
This flowery foe sows the seeds of crime in the Batman's path.

Poison Ivy
There's a femme fatale in the flowerbed! Another member of Batman's rogues gallery, Poison Ivy hates mankind, feeling they are a blight on her precious plants.

Chlorophyll Kid
A member of the ineffectual Legion of Substitute Heroes, Chlorophyll Kid has the amazing ability to toss seeds at the ground and make them grow super-fast. Handy in the garden, not so handy when fighting supervillains.

White Kryptonite
White Kryptonite isn't a character, but a substance encountered by Superman in several of his adventures. Formed when some of the more traditional green Kryptonite rocks passed through a mysterious "space cloud," white Kryptonite has the ability to destroy all plant life. Great for weeding!

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