Worldbuilding: When Foraging Isn’t For Food… Directly

One thing that’s sometimes downplayed in both fantasy and post-apocalyptic fic is the fact that people are, culturally, tool-users. In fact, we have whole disciplines built around making the tools needed to make a second set of tools to make the third set you actually need. And so on.

A lot of survival fic doesn’t really cover this. Which is, in a way, reasonable. If you’re writing action and people in crisis, they have to work with what they have on hand; they don’t have a year or more to season a bow.

Still, it’s a knowledge gap. And if a character is living in a setting where such skills are in general use, or trying to survive an apocalypse long-term, it’s something a writer ought to poke at.

One thing you generally need for long-term survival is some kind of healthy agriculture. There is a lot involved in growing your own. But one common technique for making more of a useful plant is rooting cuttings. In simplest terms, take a twig, stem, etc, put it in water, hope it grows roots. For some plants this is easy. For others… not so much.

Which is why, as one book I recently got my hands on pointed out, you need to know where your willow trees are.

First-year willow sprouts have a lot of rooting hormone in them. You can use them to make a solution that will increase the chances your plant slip will root. More roots mean more chance of a new plant, meaning more chance that everyone counting on your gardening to eat might just survive.

So one of the most important plants you might forage is something that isn’t exactly edible. And that, my friends, is tool-using.

So… what might be growing in a fantasy world that makes life just a bit less fragile, if you know how to use it right?



54 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: When Foraging Isn’t For Food… Directly

  1. Athelas? Seriously, learning what herbs did was probably a hell of a learning curve for ye olden herbwives. Can you imagine having to try that stuff out? In other nonfood things to forage for- contraceptives! Supposedly, silphium was an herbal contraceptive in Classical times, which might have been overharvested into extinction. Things for charas to definitely be concerned about!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Heck of a learning curve even before you get into preparations– SuburbanBanshee shared an article on one ointment….
      It now appears that “Bald’s eyesalve,” a 10th century Saxon mix of garlic, wine, leek or onion juice, oxgall, and brass chemical byproducts, does kill 99.99% of MRSA on mouse skin samples, when applied topically. (Which is to say that they removed the skin from the mice and gave it MRSA, not that they gave MRSA to the mice.) They also tested versions which contained only one or two of the main ingredients, or only water cooked in the brass vessel, or only versions without the special instructions. All of these did little good, whereas the full Bald’s eyesalve combo kicked the heck out of MRSA. Bald’s eyesalve was also remarkable for being able to breach the sticky biofilm coating which protects MRSA, and then kill all but 1 cell out of every 1000 cells of MRSA.

      They made it in glass the first time, got a stinky mess.

      Then someone went “Wait, what would they have been doing this in?” and tried it THAT way.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Foxglove for digitalis, willows again for the base element of aspirin. A good medical herbal reference. i have a memory of a type of moss being used for wound dressings because it was so absorbent – peat moss? Also useful for menses. poppy seeds for growing opium poppies for severe pain.

    Can’t think of anything as obscure as willow bits for helping plants root & sprout.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sphagnum moss is the live version. It’s not just absorbent, its acid tends to discourage bacteria.

      On the willow – heh! I took a plant tissue culture course once, so I looked at that bit in the foraging book and said, “Wait a minute. That could actually work….”

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Knowing dangers is important, too– pine needles cause miscarriage in second trimester cattle (it’s horrible– they’re perfect little calves, but naked and small enough to fit in one of those big pickle jars), there’s Death Camas which has an… alkaline I believe… poison so strong that if you pull it wearing water-proofed leather gloves enough can soak through to make you dizzy and sick, there’s wild lupin which causes cyclopean calves (born alive, but basically just enough to be able to breath the fluid from their lungs before dying, I think it weakens their hearts as well). Cows are big enough to get a lot of plant matter and they’re what I grew up around, so that’s what I know.

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    1. Alligator pears aren’t poisonous, but cutting the peel barehanded and getting peel juices on yourself before cooking is like instant poison ivy. I still can’t believe I got itchy from peeling off the produce sticker! (Although it doesn’t bother some people at all.)

      Liked by 2 people

      1. And no matter what it says on My Little Pony, daffodils are poison to horses as well as deer. There are huge numbers of plants that horses shouldn’t eat, and they don’t always have the sense to ignore them.

        On the bright side, crabgrass is a good fodder and hay. Knotweed, too.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Hot peppers, dried and ground and scattered, also prevent marking behavior in dogs and cats.

        We had people that were pooping their dogs on our front yard; visit to the dollar store and several containers scattered weekly around the yard later, the dogs were simply not interested– they couldn’t smell either their own scent to renew, or a challenger to block. In theory, you can hurt a dog by throwing a handful of the powder into their face when they attack, but it takes that level of direct impact to be more than mildly annoying and since humans respond so much faster to it, seems like a REALLY bad idea.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Oddly enough, my first thought was clothing/weaving material(including dyes) and potting material. (No, you can’t use just any old clay.) Clothing wears out fast, and yes leathers can work, but a lot of people have no idea how to make them, and you still want bowls, containers and the like.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Not to mention, tanning leathers so they don’t rot fast? Stinks to high heaven. On the other hand, it’s a reasonable use of a resource that might otherwise be “wasted” (literally).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I was in Japan once, and bought some as a topical burn salve (cause that’s all we used it for growing up)
      The guy I bought it from said it’s good against digestive ailments, dairy-related ones in particular, if I understood him right.


  5. Actually any basic plant knowledge is worth having. I had to stop watching some of those survival programs on Discovery, I kept going; “There, there, right beside you! No, there! What the h*ll are you doing fishing while you’re standing in the reeds!?” (Seriously, that guy *deserved* to lose 50% of his body-weight – idiot!)

    When going into a forest/the wilderness/not-a-city, know *at least* five commonly available edible plants that are *in season* and grows in the area you are going. Tougher during the winter, but not impossible.

    Flavia (bv97045)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Salt, for cooking and food preservation. Bayberries for making candles, or beehives for wax and honey. Flax for the seeds and fiber, although it might take some time to be able to process it properly. Pine trees for resin and needles. (Yep, needles. They’re high in vitamin C, and scurvy is a nasty thing.) I could go on a while. This is fun!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Apropos of nothing, there is a short documentary series on Amazon Prime called Kung Fu Quest. It is interesting for seeing the different principles that various martial arts use. Also I learned that Wing Chun started as a woman’s martial art, which explained a lot.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Also keep an eye out for potentially useful animals or the clues animals can give you about what’s going on around you!

    Ravens often work with wolves, so a large number of ravens being around an area often might also mean that you have a local wolf-pack, who might be looking at your own animals or even children as something to eat. Large birds, especially vultures, circling an area might indicate the presence of an animal that has been killed for some reason, which you might be able to harvest but which might also be attracting predators to it (and might have been killed by said predators.) Smaller songbirds congregating somewhere can mean that there are potentially edible seed or fruit-bearing plants nearby; the presence of fish in a waterway can give you a hint as to potential pollution levels in the water (some fish just can’t survive in polluted waters, and knowing which ones those are can be helpful.)

    A lot of potentially useful animals can be found and if you have the skills maybe even caught, especially in a post-apocalypse scenario where they might have gotten loose. Chickens (or really any other bird) provide you eggs, any kind of bird you can keep including chickens, ducks, and geese have feathers that are useful for various things including fletching, quill-pens, and stuffing or insulation for quilts or jackets.

    Goats are easy to keep, require less space than cattle, eat food scraps that might otherwise attract scavengers and predators, and also produce a hair that can be used for weaving. (goats are also less delicate than sheep, although goat hair is not as good for spinning as sheep wool.) Some breeds of rabbit also have useful fur, either for shaving or for, well, keeping the fur after eating the rabbit, and they breed quickly enough and are small enough to be worth keeping a hutch somewhere and keeping them fed.

    Having a few large dogs can potentially serve to scare wolves and other predators off, or alert you to the ones big enough not to be scared by dogs (Because you don’t want to wake up to the surprise bear in your cabin.)

    Any of these and more, if you can get it home alive, chances are some crafty scavenger can find a use for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Though re goats, you have to have good pens, or they will eat everything you plant. Down to the roses. And for goats your fencing has to be, as they say, watertight. 🙂

      (I know how to milk a goat. And how much damage they can do, especially to apple trees, gah….)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Goats aren’t indestructible, though. One of the goats at the local farm where we volunteer got fed some thing I can’t remember now and nearly died. Rather more strongly phrased signs went up about not feeding the animals after that.
        My daughter can milk cow or goat. Says sheep are more difficult than either. Spins, too. Fabric is work. Even if you start from washed wool.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The problem with goat grazing is that they eat everything down to the roots, and they can make deserts that way. But if you keep them moving or give them feed in a pen, they are smarter than sheep and good guards.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Ravens often work with wolves, so a large number of ravens being around an area often might also mean that you have a local wolf-pack, who might be looking at your own animals or even children as something to eat.

      Passing this on to my dad– we’re staying with them right now, and when he went out to check the calving heifers last night, he stepped on really big canine prints at the back door.

      He’d swept the walk about 7, we figure it was at the back door about 9pm.

      We’ve already seen them harassing the local coyotes; thank goodness he got worried after that an moved the dogs’ houses into a metal shipping container for night.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. There is a lot those who aren’t could learn from the living the lives of hunter-gatherers or farmers. Or as Vathara said, just living rough in a fantasy world.

    Because besides the various edible and useful for other things plants knowledge one would need, there is stuff like how to identify and track wild animals, properly prepare both the animal and plants stuff you get (some plants are poisonous unless prepared right), tan and cure the hides (furs and such are very usual in winter, especially if you have no modern climate-controlled building to stay in) making and tending a small fire (especially if you don’t have matches), leather can hold up pretty well but make it takes work to make (and making is kind of gross – there is a reason tanneries are outside the city limits or put with the other gross-smelling trades somewhere) and you have to know how to take care of it so it doesn’t wear out faster than it should, same thing with your medieval weapons – forget making the bow, how many people know how to take care of one or a sword so it stays in proper working order for as long as possible . . . the list goes on.

    I guess they tend to skip this stuff in fantasy novels and the like because their sub-genre is action-adventure and they don’t want to take too much time away from the action and adventure parts . . . . and the writers who do include it tend info-dump this kind of stuff on you and that load can be several pages long that the plot and the characters have been put on pause for . . .

    OTOH, writing that kind of exposition can be difficult and there might not be another way of getting that information across. Jean Auel’s Earth Children books have reams of info-dumps but most of it is trying to explain how the world was during the Last Ice Age and other stuff that she can’t have the characters convey through their narration or actions because they don’t know that information. But readers need it. And that is an advantage of having a 3rd person omnipresence narrator is that they can give the reader information the characters have no way of knowing . . .

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I happen to like reading info-dumps sometimes, so . .

        I do too sometimes. Depends on the book. First book by a new author – I tend to read everything including the info dumps since I’m unfamiliar with the world. Second book by that author said info dumps will probably be skimmed in favor of finding out what is happening to the characters and plot on the first read-through and not-skimmed on the second read through.

        Through some authors have convinced me to read through their exposition info dumps in each book without skimming those parts. I’m not sure what magic spell they performed to accomplish that but I wish I had it.

        Wonder if there’s a way to have an adventure around getting supplies in advance….

        Probably depends a lot on the setting and the characters in question.

        Shiroe from Log Horizon would do it. After all, fetch quest is a thing.

        Sounds like something that would happen to Alibaba. Or Alan.

        Or something a Djinn might decide to do as part of their Dungeon. There is probably at least one that is looking for resourcefulness and like in their King.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. And heh. Was absently poking origfic ideas, but yes, Shiroe has done things like that…

        Oh it’d make an interesting original fantasy novel by itself if handled right. 🙂

        Just sometimes poking fic ideas can sometimes also shake loose some origfic ideas and vice versa.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Might be worth looking into adventurer’s memoirs for that. I remember Roy Chapman Andrews as being pretty readable. And quoting someone familiar as an Arctic explorer but the name now escapes me, as saying wtte if you have adventurous adventures you didn’t plan and prepare well enough.

        Liked by 2 people

  10. So i ran across a book recently that actually went into the bowmaking process. It was very well written. Dawn of Wonder by Jonathan Renshaw. New on the publishing scene but such a good book.


    1. Also main character? Dealing with ptsd, is a wild child aaaand he manages to get the description of difficulties with different weapons as part of the story. Same with the bowmaking in a survival situation.


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