This article on plants in world-building is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the cultural, historical, or world-building aspects of fantasy with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
The Expert: Amber Royer
Amber Royer is a chocolate grower and co-author of the cookbook There are Herbs in My Chocolate, She writes the CHOCOVERSE comic space opera series, in which much chocolate is grown, stolen, ruined, baked, etc., and had a long-running column for Dave’s Garden, where she covered gardening. She and her husband are currently growing chocolate indoors in the Office Plant Cacao Project. She blogs about creative writing technique and all things chocolate related. She has a MLIS from UNT and teaches creative writing for both UT Arlington Continuing Education and Writing Workshops Dallas. You should follow her on Instagram.
Plants in World-building and Cacao Case Study
I learned early that Botany can be an important part of worldbuilding. One of my favorite books as a kid was The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh. In it, colonists land on an alien planet and plant crops they brought from home – only the alien soil infuses silicates into the earth crops, rendering “glass grass,” and the like. If the people can’t overcome this botanical problem, the colony fails and they all die. Which makes for huge stakes, especially when you’re reading it as a ten-year-old.
But plants have a huge impact on more sophisticated works as well:
- They can be used to cement a setting and make a statement about the story world, as with Jurassic Park, where the park designers’ use of poisonous plants inside the park, because they look cool, is brought out in both the book (Michael Crichton) and the film, in order to highlight the carelessness with which the whole project had been put together.
- They can be used as characters. Sometimes this is subtle, more a reflection of some actual character’s attachment to a certain tree or whatever than to any agency on the part of said tree. But in Sue Burke’s Semiosis, her colonists land on a world where the plants turn out to be sentient, and finding a way to communicate with them becomes vital.
- They can be used to foreshadow and explain. When you read the first Pern books (Anne McCaffery), they come across as fantasy. But there’s this beverage made from the bark of a local tree that everyone treats like coffee, so after a while, you’re like – why didn’t the author just use coffee? So when you realize books and books later that these people came from Earth and remember real coffee, it feels like a little detail that keeps the revelation from coming out of left field.
Deep World-building in Fantasy
Deep world-building (as opposed to wide world-building) focuses in on one thing, and looks at different implications it has for your characters’ world and lives. For example, the Force in Star Wars was used in different contexts and different ways, to move things, communicate telepathically, even fly through space.
This repetition of concept allows a reader/viewer to feel like they are in on how the world works, and to applaud the characters for using that one thing in unique ways to solve problems (as opposed to giving them a different whiz-bang tech, weapon or concept to get out of each situation). You could create an entire world-building system based on plants. Or even centered around one plant.
If you are building a fantasy or science fiction world, you can riff on some of the oddities of Earth plants to create your world’s more fantastical versions.
Case Study: Cacao
Let’s break down the usual questions you ask when world-building and center them around real-world cacao to show how you could design a fantasy or sci-fi setting around a fantastical or alien plant.
Theobroma cacao is a tropical evergreen in the family Malvaceae. It also happens to be the tree that chocolate comes from. Other members of the family include okra, cotton, and durian. There are several other trees in the Theobroma genus that produce edible fruit/seeds, but none have gained the world’s attention like cacao.
Plants and Geography
What does this story’s setting look like?
If cacao is growing in your setting, your characters are inside Earth’s “chocolate” belt, roughly 20 degrees North and South of the Equator. They are in an area with relatively comfortable temperatures (cacao trees don’t like to get colder than 50 degrees or warmer than 90 degrees F) and plentiful water: high humidity and frequent rainfall. Best elevation is under 1,000 feet above sea level, which means you’re not on the side of a mountain.
We are experimenting with growing cacao indoors, as office plants, and the office turned the heat off during a cold Texas long weekend. Months later, the youngest plants still have crinkled, brown leaves.
Plants in the Ecosystem
While there are cultivated cacao plantations, which require careful shading of young trees, wild cacao trees are undercanopy plants, surrounded by taller rainforest trees and by other understory/forest floor plants. This includes ground plants such as ferns, orchids and bromeliads, and climbing vines. Characters might be local farmers – but could also be chocolate sourcers from anywhere in the world.
Cacao trees will attract animals who want to eat the sweet pulp from the cacao pods. One animal especially connected to cacao? Bats. Fruit-eating bats help disperse the seeds, while insect-eating bats help protect the trees from pests. One study found that excluding bats from an area of cacao trees made the production yield fall by 22%. Some insects, though, are required for cacao’s survival. Without the several species of tiny flies known colloquially as chocolate midges, the cacao trees’ flowers couldn’t be pollinated.
Also expect: monkeys, birds and squirrels. And anything that eats bats, monkeys, birds and squirrels – and possibly unwary characters.
What is the economic system like? Do people invest? Barter?
In pre-Columbian times, the Aztecs and Mayas used cacao beans as money. Charts listing the exchange rates were documented by the Conquistadors. A 1545 list of commodity prices in Tlaxcala (exhibited online by the Columbia University Library) gives an idea of the purchasing value of cacao:
1 good turkey hen=100 cacao beans
1 turkey egg=3 cacao beans
1 fully ripe avocado=1 cacao bean
1 large tomato=1 cacao bean
Under Aztec rule, the need to turn over large amounts of cacao as tribute, and the pervasiveness of cacao as barter currency led to the rise of counterfeiting, which became widespread enough that archaeologists have found examples of faked clay cocoa beans still in existence. Beans were also counterfeited by carving avocado pits into bean shapes and waxing them to give the appropriate sheen.
Today, chocolate is seen as a reasonably priced luxury that serves as an interesting economic indicator. In the UK, Cadbury makes Freddos, small frog-shaped chocolate bars. The Freddo Index charts the percentage the price of a Freddo (and presumably other luxury items) has increased versus overall inflation rates. It has been consistently higher than expected (in 2016 it was 25 p when inflation suggested it should be at 15 p) – until 2018 when the price actually dropped.
At the other end of the production chain, farmers may easily lose 30% of their trees’ yield per year to pests and diseases, while the global prices for cacao fluctuate daily, affecting how much they will earn for the remaining beans. As a result, many farmers join co-ops to leverage selling power, and some chocolate makers/chocolate sourcers visit farms to make deals directly. Some of these professionals are educating farmers in ways to create more desirable beans (focusing on how the beans are fermented and dried, and can include details as small as the wood fermentation boxes are made from), to maximize their profits.
Trade and Conflict
What resources are plentiful here? What shortages might cause conflict?
Chocolate is grown in rural/tropical areas. Areas where solid eating chocolate can be processed efficiently are usually more temperate or have access to plentiful refrigeration/air conditioning. This is why chocolate processed in industrial Monterrey, Mexico is often grown in Chiapas and transported North. (One Monterrey-based chocolate maker we visited is partnering with Chiapas University to educate farmers inside the same country.) Many cacao farmers never taste the finished chocolate made from what they have grown, though locally, the beans are often stone-ground to make beverages.
While some small makers import beans from all over the world, it is more likely for someone in the United States to import beans from South America than from Africa (though most of the world’s chocolate is produced in Africa) because of shipping costs/logistics.
There is some worry that the world might run out of chocolate, as demand outstrips production, or if predicted global warming significantly changes the growing region. But you can design something more cataclysmic for your fantasy plants. Just imagine the conflict created if Earth’s axis changed and a massive ice storm rolled through the tropics and suddenly, the bars of chocolate already in stores were the only ones left.
Personal and World History
What has happened in this place? How has history shaped your protagonist’s life?
Chocolate houses in Europe were all the rage in the 1600s – and they may well have shaped history for several reasons:
- They were places where people met together to for pointed social discussion. 1675, Charles II tried to ban chocolate houses for, among other excesses, political plotting. (These were rowdy places. If you decide to write one, look up White’s, where the regulars once stopped people from assisting a man who had collapsed, because that might affect the outcome of a bet they’d made as to whether he was dead.)
- They fed into the notion of chocolate as a highly desirable luxury item. People went to the chocolate houses to be seen with other upwardly-social or political types. And that in turn fed into a growing craving for chocolate that took over Europe. (An Irishman brought chocolate to the United States in 1765, after learning his craft as a chocolatier in England. But the company was run by physician Dr. James Baker, which is where we get Baker’s Chocolate.)
Roughly 70% of the world’s chocolate is grown in Africa, but cacao isn’t native to that continent. And you know how some of the world’s best coffee is grown in Costa Rica, Columbia and Brazil? Nope. Not native. Chocolate is native to Central and South America, not coffee. Many sources consider Mexico to be the birthplace of chocolate. So how did some of the most sought-after cacao beans in the world come to be produced in Madagascar? The American Revolutionary War in 1776, followed by the War of 1812, made the Atlantic Ocean a dangerous place for trading ships to cross. Christian missionaries showed up with cacao beans in West Africa, planning to take advantage of a hot, rainy climate similar to that in Central America – while skirting around the wars and social instability. There are records of chocolate in Africa as early as 1819. This led to a complicated, ugly period in chocolate’s history, with the demand for cheaper products at odds with fair treatment of workers.
Honestly, there were a lot of ugly periods relating to chocolate – see the Aztecs, below. Think how crop desirability conflicts could affect your speculative characters interactions in unique ways.
Food and Food Preparation
What do people in your story eat? How is it prepared?
If you crack open a cacao pod, the sweet flesh tastes like pineapple or guava. But the seeds inside? Don’t bite into them. They’re nasty. And yet . . . that’s the part that becomes chocolate. Cacao beans go through several steps to become palatable. First, the pods are cracked open, and the beans allowed to ferment in the pulp. (We’ve done this in micro-batches on the counter, and the beans go through stages where they don’t smell like anything you’d want to eat.)
Then, they have to be roasted to bring out the flavors. There’s a whole science behind flavor notes achieved at certain time/temperature combinations, but simply put: lighter roasting preserves fruity and floral notes. Chocolate makers are like wine makers – they want to put their own signature on the finished product, so what two makers do with the same beans can be dramatically different. Chocolate making is a very sensory experience. The fragrance of the beans changes as they roast. When you’re roasting chocolate, you’re waiting for the sound of the “first crack,” which sounds more like firewood popping than like popcorn. And then afterwards, you have to get the outer skin off the beans, which can be messy. (Chocolate makers who are just starting out – or people like us, making chocolate at home – often do this step with a hair dryer while tossing the beans in a bowl. Then, if you want solid eating chocolate, it has to be ground down into something that comes close to a liquid, with particles under 30 microns, so that your tongue won’t taste the grit of individual particles. That can take several days in a melangeur. Stone ground chocolate has much larger particles, and you can grind it by hand with a metate.
Chocolate is classified by the amount of cacao solids in the finished product (dark chocolate has at least 65%, milk chocolate at least 10% plus 25% cacao butter – white chocolate contains just cacao butter).
It takes about 400 beans to make a pound of chocolate. Which leaves a lot of waste. Traditionally, cacao pulp has been made into booze. It is also pressed into juice, which is now available in boxed form in the US. The exterior part of the pod is technically edible, but your character would have to be really hungry to want to go through all the work of processing it for the thin layer of squash-like flesh that’s palatable. (We tried it – it’s slippery and I nearly cut myself.)
How can this element be used creatively in the story?
The chocolate chip cookie was invented by accident. The baker in question thought the chopped chocolate in her cookie batter would melt uniformly into it. Nestle bough the recipe from her – in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate. At the time, it probably seemed like a great deal, because who could have imagined how ubiquitous the chocolate chip cookie would become? (A setup like that would be great in a story, as the character slowly starts to realize she didn’t make such an amazing deal after all.)
In 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten created a hydraulic cocoa press – allowing enough cocoa butter to be removed from chocolate liquer (the ground chocolate mass) to create cocoa powder. In 1847 Quaker chocolate manufacturing company J. S. Fry & Sons re-combined the cacao butter with cocoa powder and sugar, making the first solid “eating chocolate.”
When your characters look at their fantastic plants, what similar potential do they see?
What do people value here?
Cacao pods are shaped somewhat like the human heart, and the Aztecs drew parallels between the heart and chocolate. Chocolate beverages featured in rituals, and were therefore set aside for priests, soldiers and royalty. If you were a commoner or a prisoner of war and were served a fancy chocolate beverage – chances were that you were about to be sacrificed. (Think of the ominous foreshadowing you could set up with one character that knows the meaning of your fantastic world’s special plant – and another character that has no idea what he’s been given.)
Violence and Danger
What in this environment could be used as a weapon?
The exterior pods of cacao fruits are often used for mulch. But the mulch will still contain theobromine, which is the component in chocolate that dogs cannot handle and has resulted in poisoning. Symptoms of theobromine poisoning include tremors, seizures, and irregular heartbeat. The onset is usually marked by severe hyperactivity.
TECHNICALLY, a human can suffer theobromine poisoning. But your bad guy would have to get your character to consume around 20 pounds of chocolate. Unless said character’s allergic to chocolate . . . Or the theobromine was somehow extracted and concentrated. I’ve read several mystery stories involving poisoned chocolates, because the strong flavors mask other tastes. Rumor has it that chocolate hid the poison that killed Pope Clement XIV in 1774.
Weapons could more easily be hidden in the chocolate, either to help a character bust out of a situation – or to threaten someone. The Nazis tried to assassinate Winston Churchill with an exploding bar of chocolate. The weapon was made of thin metal, coated in real chocolate, and if you broke off a piece, it pulled out a piece of canvas — and the bar started ominously ticking.
Build on Your World’s Foundations
Inspired yet? Now that you have some idea how to use botany in worldbuilding, think about how you can make your fantastic plant special. Cacao leaves can move up to 90 degrees to shade younger leaves or catch better sun. What don’t earth plants do that you think would be cool? Change color to hide? Uproot themselves to migrate with the seasons?
- Cacao Production Guide. https://businessdiary.com.ph/2191/cacao-production-guide/
- Fun Facts About Chocolate. https://www.candyusa.com/story-of-chocolate/fun-facts-about-chocolate/
- 100 Chocolate Facts. https://www.thefactsite.com/100-chocolate-facts/
- Bats and Chocolate Porudction. https://www.merlintuttle.org/2018/06/13/bats-and-chocolate-production/
- When Money Grew On Trees by Cornell University.
- Chocolate and Africa. https://quatr.us/african-history/chocolate-and-africa-2.htm
- The Poisonous Nature of Chocolate. https://www.wired.com/2013/02/the-poisonous-nature-of-chocolate/
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