Plants in literature

I’m going to look at trees and forests in literature later as they’re big topics which deserve some space of their own.

We’ve already seen plants fill our metaphors and act as symbols in many ways but they also feature in our books, poetry and songs.  Unlike with animals though, plants seem rarely to be characters and if they are, they are far less likely to be main characters.  I’d love it if you left a comment if you can think of any good examples of plants as main characters!

Nursery rhymes

All of the meanings I mention are likely to be theories as the nature of nursery rhymes means they don’t come with a nice, handy translation guide!

  • Here we go round the mulberry bush – apparently the mulberry tree used to be planted in a prison and prisoners got their daily exercise walking around it
  • Oranges and lemons – theories about the meaning of this particular nursery rhyme have little to do with plants and include child sacrifice, public executions and Henry VIII’s marital difficulties.
  • Round and round the garden
  • Mary, mary, how does your garden grow – a gruesome account of the torture of Mary Tudor… and a good example of how language and meaning changes overtime, leaving us with the shell of  a rhyme.  To sing this today, we could easily take the silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row to be a nicety… In reality, it apparently refers torture instruments and the maiden was the guillotine.  Her garden may have been a reference to her lack of heirs.
  • Ring a ring of roses – about the plague…
  • Sing a song of sixpence – the rye was apparently used to lure birds from the trees

There seems to be many more but I’d not heard of most of them… And plants play a back seat which makes sense when you consider how much closer to nature and plant life we used to be.  Back when the nursery rhymes were being written, children would have had a better knowledge of species of plants etc.

I wonder how many people, adults included, actually recognise the plants that they know so well in the context of the nursery rhymes… It seems like plant blindness may extend to plant deafness in that we no longer hear the plant words for what they are…

Books and stories

Here we do find some plant characters but mainly we see plants featuring as food, or in other practical ways.

  • The hungry caterpillar with the array of delicious fruits etc
  • Alice in wonderland features talking flowers
  • Wizard of Oz – the mangaboos are vegetable people who live in Oz
  • James and the giant peach
  • Sleeping beauty and the apple which sends her to sleep
  • The Hunger Games contains numerous references to specific plants which help Katniss to survive, indeed characters are named after plants; Katniss is a type of plant, Primrose is Katniss’ sister and Rue is a friend of hers
  • Cinderella, at least the Disney version, has the pumpkin carriage and the Grimm version had a tree which granted wishes
  • Beauty and the beast has the enchanted rose
  • Princess and the pea

A lot of the examples I found were either folklore and fairy tale or else the plants featured were trees which I’m looking at separately.  It seems in the world of literature, plants are underrated…


Poetry however is a bit more promising.  I’m sure we can all name a handful of poems which are about, or feature, plants, generally as flowers so I’m not going to list them.

Plants seem to be used a lot as part of the scene setting which helps to give us a sense of time and place very quickly – palm trees mean beach, holly means Christmas etc.  Perhaps it is this gap in literature which contributes, and is a symptom of, our plant blindness.  From what I can tell, and I’ve not actually tested this theory, it seems that plants are significantly more likely to be part of art as opposed to literature.  And within literature, they are more likely to be found in poetry than in prose.

When I look at trees, I’m anticipating a slightly different picture to that for plants in general.

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