Worldbuilding: Fruits, Nuts, & Flakes

No, not the denizens of California. Though a lot of fruits and nuts have been grown there since the 1800s. I’m talking about local and not so local cuisine. What’s available in the supermarkets today is vastly different from what was available two hundred or even fifty years ago. A little-known but constant thread through history are the quiet efforts of oddball explorers, wanderers, and farmers on the quest to find – or breed – new things to eat. The Perfect Fruit by Chip Brantley goes into the history of the pluot, and plum and fruit exploration and breeding centuries before it was ever imagined. You might also look at books like The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe, Death in the Garden: Poisonous Plants and Their Use Throughout History by Michael Brown  and The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms by Naoko Abe.  In 1800s England, for example, peaches were rare and expensive, and pumelos and kiwis unheard-of.

And yet a lot of fantasy and SF stories ignore the fact that 1) edibles are not the same everywhere and 2) lifetimes of adventures could be had chasing after one more odd plant no one else knew much about.

Which is a shame. It may not be dragon-hunting directly, but there’s no reason dragons (or aliens) can’t be involved. Just look at the Apples of the Hesperides that Hercules had to steal, the gold, silver, and jeweled forests in the Twelve Dancing Princesses, or the legendary Peaches of Immortality. Heck, check out the herb of immortality in the Epic of Gilgamesh for a plant only achieved by great hazards.

(They don’t have to be god-level hazards. In the first episode of the historical drama The Three Musketeers (Korean: 삼총사; RR: Samchongsa), our young hero Park Dal-yang ends up facing “road closed due to tiger”. When’s the last time you saw that as a story hazard?)

You could make whole stories out of hunting, breeding, and stealing plants from far-away places, hidden gardens, and mad wizards’ greenhouses. The poison maiden of Rappaccini’s Daughter could be one foe; the police and army of an entire empire devoted to hiding one particular secret, another.

Even if you don’t want to write a story about plant-hunting, it can make an excellent subplot, character background, or reason for adventurers to go on a rescue mission. We need the Archmage to stop the onslaught of the terrible undead typhoon! …But he’s up in the mountains looking for a lily that only blooms once every hundred years under full starlight, and you’re going to have to go get him….

Poke some plant history! It might get your story growing in a different direction.


34 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Fruits, Nuts, & Flakes

  1. Plant and food history is just so fascinating. The things people have done to find or sell spices or tea etc, the roles they’ve played- from that very famous tea party to Gandhi’s salt- gathering, you can go from a basic adventure-quest to find the vanished Roman Silphium to political shenanigans in authority and empire over a nice cup of tea.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s particularly frustrating when the character is dumped into a new world, and thinks “I’m going to go into the the forest and gather some plants A, B and C to make my secret medicine/food!”

    If they moved 500 miles in their own world, there wouldn’t be any guarantee that they’d find the same plants.
    Going to a new world, what the hell makes them so confident that they will find exactly what they need?

    Liked by 2 people


        The bit about people exclaiming “I have those in my flower garden!” is hilarious, in a blood-curdling sort of way.

        Like the flower that, if you take a good sniff, will give you an anime-grade nosebleed… that won’t stop until you’re dead, or get serious medical intervention. Or the ones that, the moment you realize your tongue has stopped working, you have maybe a minute to get to open air *or else*.

        The Garden is maintained b/c these plants all have some medicinal properties, in the correct dosages. Which leads to a question whose answer is now lost to the mists of time: how did anyone originally figure out that the Pretty Flower That Wanted To KILL YOU could actually save your life, in *just* the right amount? I guess the ancients benefitted from not having FDA oversight…. 😛

        A lot of the “Silk Road” trade was actually spices, and IIRC getting certain spices all the way from China to Western Europe (via land route) was lucrative enough to make considerable profit, and enough to incentivize finding a sea route once the Ottomans cut off the land route. So definitely room for stories about finding Exotic Food/Spice/Medical Herb du-jour and making bank, if you want to write something like Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League stories.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. The Garden is maintained b/c these plants all have some medicinal properties, in the correct dosages.

        I must argue with this!

        The excuse for the garden is that they’ve got medical properties.

        The because that it’s awesome.

        :big grin:

        I know that some of the medical stuff isn’t strong enough to kill you unless it’s at the right time, the right part, or after the right breeding. (tiny rant on why herbalism is so scary, seasonal water *and* time of day *and* today’s weather all matter)

        I can very easily see having a tooth-ache and going “Well, this may kill me– and I’m OK with that because the pain will at least stop.”

        Liked by 2 people

      3. In high school I was assigned chores helping to weed the herb garden behind the kitchen.

        They said “put on these gloves and pull out all the hemlock.”

        I asked “What does hemlock look like?”

        “It looks exactly like parsley, but it grows bigger and smells bad.”


        Liked by 3 people

  3. On the note at the start about “not finding the same stuff in the store” even just 50 years ago… I’ve got a cookbook on “oriental cooking” published in the 60s. It has an entire appendix of “for this one specific ingredient for this one set of recipes, you will need to mail-order it via this particular exotic import company, but for that other specific ingredient, you need to mail-order it via this _other_ exotic import company, and here’s all their addresses, here’s the time of year when some of those ingredients are available and you won’t be able to get them even by mail-order at other times of year, etc”. (also, it’s interesting to note that even that recently, hawaii was considered “part of the orient”)

    And on the note of “hunting for food would make an interesting adventure for a story”, while I haven’t actually watched it myself there’s an entire anime with that premise. Specialty cooks adventuring on the search of the most perfect food.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. In defense of their classification of Hawaii– it *is* about as far from San Diego as Seattle is from Boston, and the Exotics stuff from there would better match “oriental” than “European.” 😀

      But it really is just… awesome… how I can be sitting in central Iowa, which is about as bad an option for imports as you can ask for, and have a well-stocked selection of Vietnamese instant coffee, Thai ramen, Japanese pasta, various sauces and such that have a sticker printed out to meet ingredient standards, and if I wanted I could probably fill the fridge with stuff from that list that hasn’t caught on in general use before dinner time.

      Yeah, the CC Lemon is too expensive to get except as a very special treat (husband’s favorite drink in Japan), but it’s there.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. One of the best seafood joints I ever ate at (and I’m not a seafood person) was in Kansas City. Their fresh fish was air-freighted in every morning from the coasts, and as such was never more than 12 hours sea-to-plate. And I was the only person croggled by this.

        Of course, *these* days, everyone is much more aware of the global supply chain and how fragile it can be….

        Liked by 4 people

      2. I wasn’t arguing about their definition of Hawaii as “oriental”, just commenting on “most people nowdays don’t think of it that way at all… but even just a coupe generations back that’s what everyone thought of it as, and seeing it listed that way dates the book it’s in.”

        Liked by 1 person

      3. :laughing still: I was just joining you in marveling at, well, how much we live in the future, now– even when I could see the logic.

        It’s just so… so *neat* to be *able* to get out of what’s “normal” in our heads, at least I find it fun.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. It’s kind of like how I’m still having nifty fits over finding out what old stuff *meant* when it wrote stuff– like some cultures didn’t mean a ruby crimson tinged corundum crystal when they said ruby, they meant a clear red crystal.

        Or things like that translation artifact that says “birds” when what was written is more like “flying creatures big enough to eat” and folks get confused when it doesn’t only apply to two winged, two legged, warm blooded egg layers, most of whom fly.
        (I’m *fairly* sure gnats didn’t count, but… locusts?… did…. I don’t have links on hand though.)

        Liked by 2 people

      5. Korea is freaking Appalachia, but with harsher temperatures. Chinese mountains look weird but Korea looks pretty much like normal mountains groomed in a Chinese way. Also, barbecue. Also, evangelicals. Also, use of canned food and wieners in cuisine.

        Liked by 2 people

      6. On that one about old names for jewels, Adamantine was an old name for diamond, which Tolkien used in that way in some of his work… so when Barad-dur is also described as adamantine, he _could_ have just been saying Sauron’s tower was extremely hard and difficult to break (probably was meaning that at least as a secondary meaning), but he also could have been saying Sauron’s tower was a tower of bling…

        Liked by 2 people

    2. The anime/manga you’re probably talking about is “Toriko”.

      The manwha “Hardcore Leveling Warrior” has one of the main characters’ classes be a “Taster”… a class that gets permanent stats by eating rare ingredients (usually from hard to kill monsters). This gets combined with a “chef” class that can turn other people’s attacks into food… And this character is easily one of the strongest characters in the entire story as a result…

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Looking at stuff in paintings is interesting– I can’t remember which one, but one of the lovely still-lifes has this weird green ball thing, with maybe a third of the center faintly pink.
    … it’s a watermelon.

    And in really old traditions, the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good And Evil (or any other desirable fruit) was usually a pomegranate, apples were these kinda nasty little things that were edible but not especially good. (The apple/evil thing is a pun, if I remember right– quick look, yes, malum is latin for apple, malus is evil, so easy pun.)

    Norman Borlaug is amazing for getting an idea of what you can manage with selective breeding applied with, well, good resources and being methodical enough. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Check out “Tales of the Mongoose and Meerkat Vol. 1: Pursuit Without Asking” for a story where the titular heroes have to hunt for a Burning Fish for a reward from a noble who wants a live specimen of his family crest’s. It also has a story where farming for dye and brandy plays a role in the plot. Not *exactly* in line with our hostess’ point, but very, very close to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What’s also wild to explain to people is the concept of “grafting” aka taking a branch from one tree and essentially getting it to grow on another tree of the same species (apple, grape and olive trees will have this done *a lot*). I’ve had several people ask me if this is some new thing farmers do (along the lines of GMOs) and are baffled when I tell them people have been doing it for several thousand years.

    Also wild is that some types of plants don’t “breed true”. Instead all the genes from the parents get… essentially run through a RNG and get all mixed up. This makes breeding specific traits in these types of plants *very* difficult to do (until recent times). Apples are a good example of this. This is one of the reasons people even came up with grafting trees. It allowed them to effectively “copy” certain varieties and keep them alive even when they couldn’t breed them for their traits.

    This *does* lead to variety stagnation though. Europe has very few apple varieties because people grafted apples for so long they didn’t breed any new ones. It’s no until Apples came to the US where they *were* grown from seeds that the number of apple varieties exploded.

    Now think of a story where someone wants a *specific* variety of a plant, but can’t breed it themselves and needs someone to go get an actual *specimen* of the plant they want, rather than just the seeds of it. Oh, and the plant has something dangerous about it (carnivorous, secretes acidic sap, etc.)…

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Years (decades? gads, I’m OLD) I listened to an NPR show where the host visited an experimental apple-breeding orchard owned by a major agribusiness. And got to taste an apple that *naturally* tasted like *lemon pie* (not “raw” lemon). Developed entirely by careful breeding.

      The downside of the story was you’ll never see them in supermarkets, b/c their marketing tests showed it wouldn’t sell. But the seeds are probably still archived somewhere….

      Hm… a story world where the “see vault” is *aggressive* about collecting samples (in the “Library of Alexandria” sense), to the point of hiring Adventurers to “collect” them, one way or another. There’s a real-world example “bio-pirate” who smuggled several thousand rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil in the 1800s back to England, and ended up breaking the South American rubber monopoly.

      Idaho Jones: “Those potatoes belong in a seed vault!” 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “Europe has very few apple varieties. . . ”

      Actually incorrect, sorry! It would be better to say “very few apple varieties *commercially*available*”. Old (nineteenth century) gardening books specialicing in fruit trees lists hundreds of varieties. And apologies for only listing the more common kinds.

      The true numbers are probably in the greater thousands. (After all, everyone had apple trees.) I know my grandfather grew his trees until they fruited the first time, and *then* he grafted on a better strain. If others did the same (because the trees needed to get to a certain size) then any improved new kinds would be kept and probably multiplied (re-grafted).

      Meaning any small village of a hundred people might have two or three unique apple kinds. After all, how far can you carry a twig for grafting? As opposed to seeds?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Or… Imagine if the Irish Potato Famine was something England had actually arranged, or at least decided to block efforts to alleviate, because England benefitted from it (I’ve heard Historical Conspiracy Theories in this vein, actually). Weaponized famine (which is sadly too real).

    Your Intrepid Seed Rangers are looking for a new crop variety that can thrive in the famine-struck region, and have play Bond Games as various players try to (ahem!) crop-block them….

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t know a lot about this, but the blight hit all the European countries nearly simultaneously, because Black ’47 and 1848 were both very cold, damp, and miserable crop years. England, France, Italy, and the German states all suffered from it, and a warning about it was actually part of the La Salette Marian apparition, IIRC. The problem in Ireland was that poor rural Irish ate almost nothing but potatoes grown on their own tiny rental garden plots, whereas other food crops like wheat, which were grown in arable fields, were the property of landlords. Often absentee landlords.

      And IIRC, the futures market had been invented, and a lot of the crops and “corn” (ie, wheat) had been sold to other people for years ahead, and the English landlords could not default without losing everything. So people were starving, and food was being shipped out of Ireland. (Often to other countries having mini-famines.)

      And that was why the US ended up sending a lot of famine relief, because the US was already growing more crops than most of Europe, and we had a lot of crops that could grow in colder, wetter years. And no potato blight to speak of.

      Mind you, there were a lot of English politicians and businessmen who got the boot into Ireland while it was down. And a lot of anti-Catholic use of famine relief (ie, only if you convert to Protestantism), although probably not as much as the stories by people remembering and resenting. Also a lot more remembrance of kindness, like the Choctaw and other tribes who sent donations to help with the Famine.

      But weird effects too, like people who won’t eat certain traditional Irish foods, because their relatives generations back ate them for months during the Famine, and took a dislike to them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. But weird effects too, like people who won’t eat certain traditional Irish foods, because their relatives generations back ate them for months during the Famine, and took a dislike to them.

        I’m not sure which came first, but there’s a “thing” in Irish culture friends and family about not eating “poor people food.”

        You come to America, you eat beef. It’s corned beef, because the Jewish butchers had stuff cheap, and it might just be a sliver in with a head of cabbage, but you were eating BEEF.

        You move out if the immigrant area, get successful– won’t touch corned beef. That’s poor people food. To the point that my mom didn’t know corned beef was supposed to be a thing for the Irish, when most of her home town had living-memory history of Ireland or just-came-over-from-Ireland.

        Mom ate a lot of spam and chicken, including times when their meat was chicken’s feet because that was free.
        So I grew up with mom refusing to have spam in the house, and HATING to offer chicken, because [cues up the chorus] that’s poor people food…..

        Liked by 1 person

      2. And then there’s odd ones like me: “plain old rice and beans is comfort food. just rice, black beans, and a sprinkle of salt. because of nostalgia from when I was growing up.” Despite “rice and beans” being a widely denigrated food in modern culture, that is frequently used as the butt of jokes about “even poor people don’t like it.”

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Rice and beans is delicious. Anybody who doesn’t want theirs, it’s more for me. (And it contains complete nutrition, or nearly.)

        Corned beef is kinda complicated. It was a town thing, mostly, with prosperous Irish in Ireland. And then suddenly all of Ireland could afford it. And then suddenly it was declasse. And then suddenly it was something that only Americans thought was an Irish dish, oh those wacky ignorant Americans.

        And then people like Darina Allen, who champions good traditional Irish cooking and Irish food history, pointed out in great detail how she learned to make corned beef from her granny, and of course it was a traditional Irish dish, you young twits with no memory.

        (This is right up there with “Saints’ day festivals in Ireland were always quiet, peaceful, and never involved drinking, oh you wacky ignorant Americans and Canadians and….”)

        Darina Allen has some wonderful cookbooks, and often they sell them at Half Price Books new, in the run up to St. Patrick’s Day (so look now). Irish Traditional Cooking is great. There’s also Forgotten Skills of Cooking. Ballymaloe Cookery Course, How to Cook (which is simpler than Ballymaloe), and even Healthy Gluten-Free Cooking: 150 Recipes for Food Lovers.

        I bet that last one is the bomb, because that woman is freaking clever, and very understanding about home cooks with limited skills. OTOH, it’s with Irish/UK imperial measurement system only, because it didn’t get a US printing. (So you have to convert from UK to US, which can be quite different.) And I gather it includes some fairly involved recipes for people trying to replicate Irish favorites and pastries, so that their household doesn’t feel deprived. So if pastry with rice flour or gluten-free soda bread is what you need, obviously it would be awesome.

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Stealth favourite: Kok-saghyz (taraxacum bicorne)
    – also known as the rubber dandelion.

    Any rubber producing plant is a) a tree or at least a bush
    or b) needs a near tropical climate
    Except this one! Has been grown as far north as Sweden and goes from seed to harvest in a single season!

    First World War trade embargos on rubber: Swedish’ mechanical industry almost staggers to a halt. Germany synthesizes rubber substitutes (read about History of Plastic).
    Russia grows dandelions.

    Liked by 1 person

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