Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Flora on the Dinner Table

With the emphasis we hear and read regarding the health benefits of a plant-strong diet, we would be remiss were we not to mention edible flora and how we can use them in our writing. For instance, in my second book a main character is vegan, and her food choices are woven into the story line. Whether the genre is romance, thriller, murder mystery, fantasy, or some other, flora on the table can play a minor or a major role, perhaps adding an interesting twist when employed as a method to sicken or even eliminate one or more characters.

Consider the nightshade family: white, yellow, red, or purple potato (not sweet potato or yam); tomato; all kinds of sweet and spicy peppers; eggplant, okra; tomatillos; goji berries; paprika; and cayenne pepper.This partial list represents the wide range of foods that fall into this category. Popular as many of them are in various cuisines, they come with a mixed blessing because they contain alkaloids such as solanine that, in large quantities, are toxic. Even the poison can have beneficial applications; for example, the nightshade plant itself is the source of belladonna, a well-known poison that has useful medicinal properties when appropriately administered.

Most of the potato's solanine resides in and just under the skin, with sprouting spuds being higher in content and more likely to cause illness. The flesh of the potato, however, is less toxic. Some people are highly sensitive to the nightshade family, and may suffer a variety of symptoms that can be alleviated by removing all nightshade-related foods from their diets.

The importance of the potato as a food source became painfully apparent during the Irish potato famine in the mid 1800s, when a quarter of the population left the country or died of starvation as the result of several successive years of crop failures. Years ago, I edited a novel by L. Katherine Daily, Fruits of the Famine, a fascinating historical fiction story that was inspired by this devastating event.

Certain poisonous flower bulbs resemble foods such as onions and should not be stored near edibles. I recall reading about a family that had placed such bulbs under the kitchen sink alongside the onions, and an unsuspecting grandmother used one of the bulbs in preparing a meal. All family members were sickened and two or three died as I recall.

Salads are a prime example of flora on the table. All sorts of edible
greens, as well as carrots, celery, olives, and a host of other veggies can fill a bowl with tasty goodness at gatherings of family and friends. Salads combining a variety sweet fruits and sometimes nuts and seeds make a wonderful dessert. Served with other foods or as a main course, salads can create a backdrop for characters as they move through a story—or be served at clandestine meetings of various players to disguise the true purpose of their presence.

Vegetable soups warm the body and can even soothe an aching heart. On a chilly day or during a storm, a cup of hot soup is just the thing to ward off the negative effects of inclement weather. Vegetable stews, shepherds pie, and veggie lasagnas can be the centerpiece of a family meal, even for those of little financial means.

We mustn't forget the lowly mushroom. Because a number of wild varieties are highly poisonous, one who gathers them must be educated in recognizing those safe to eat, lest their anticipated meal could be their last. From ordinary varieties found in the produce departments of most grocery stores to exotic ones prepared by chefs in fine restaurants, they add a lovely touch to a meal and a tantalizing potential to add another element to a story line.

How do you use edible (and not so edible) flora in your stories?

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her at websites: LSLaneBooks.com and DenverEditor.com.


  1. I did not know that about onions! One thing about food is making sure it was actually available during the time frame of the story. I read something where they kept eating spaghetti and it was not available in the time and place.

  2. Excellent point, Diana! I thought the similar appearance of onions and some deadly flower bulbs was interesting, but the incident that killed family members was a tragic lesson for that family. You're right about food availability; items people ate in the past may differ significantly from what we eat now.

  3. In my historical novel, Wishing Caswell Dead, I mention dried apples thrown into a pot of soup or stew. In the dried fruit, it wasn't apparent that the apples were wormy because their color was also white. But in the stew, the worms floated to the top. Not very appetizing. :D

  4. Yuk! Having said that, I'm fairly certain that could have been the reality then. Hopefully, it's not the reality today! :-)


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