More boneheaded plant representations from Hollywood

not poison sumac

Writing about the Star Wars Romanesco cameo reminded me of a truly egregiously bad plant representation I saw on TV recently. I have to admit that these rants probably only serve to illustrate how trashy my taste in entertainment actually is–so I have to admit that I pretty much deserve to be disappointed. Yet I cannot remain silent in the face of such horror.

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In the deeply unpromising pilot to the YA series The 100, a group of handsome teens are walking through a stand of ferns in a redwood forest-type biome. The ferns (and, indiscriminately, the adjacent moss tufts) have been studded with purple pansy heads by the set designers. Nevermind that ferns don’t flower. One kid picks a pansy head and tucks it behind his love interest’s ear. A smarty pants kid watching this interaction notes that they’ll be sorry, because, he says, the plant is poison sumac. He’s not joking or positioned to be wrong–his character is written as somebody who knows plants.

I ask you:

Would James Bond engage in a high speed chase in a 1995 Toyota Corolla?

Would the makers Friday Night Lights have the high school football players carry basketballs instead of footballs in the game scenes, because after all, a ball is a ball?

Would Carrie Bradshaw slip on a pair of Crocs and call them Jimmy Choos?

No, no and non.

We’d never make mistakes like that justify them as being unimportant because they were just small details in a silly movie or TV show. Details matter a lot when the objects have cultural significance, as designer shoes and footballs do. This is why it is fine to be  stupid about plants, because nobody cares about plants, and we have lost every last vestige of plant literacy.

I don’t think this is a case of me being picky. I’m not being a plant geek here, pointing out some minutiae of botany. I’m talking about the misuse of really common plants that people do know, or should know.

Ferns, for example, are a plant that even the most determinedly uninterested person will still be able to identify as a fern. If you can only identify five plants, a fern would be one of them, along with grass and roses. Pansies are not as easily nameable as ferns, though they are incredibly common. Even people who don’t know what a pansy is called will still probably recognize them as a flower they’ve seen in flower beds. So why mix ferns and pansies and call the resulting Frankenplant poison sumac? This combination of laziness and arrogance takes my breath away.

More, it’s sorta dangerous. Bear with me here. In this degenerate world, no one needs to know the name of any plant to get by day to day (food plants excepted), but if a person ever intends to go outside (optional, I know) they’d better know how to identify local plants which cause contact dermatitis. Like poison sumac.

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is a shrub or tree which grows in wet spots in the Eastern parts of the U.S. and Canada. It looks nothing whatsoever like a fern. Or a pansy. It is apparently even more toxic than its itchy relatives, poison oak and poison ivy. Any teen who thinks to romp in those woods should know the difference between a fern and a poison sumac bush, and The 100 is doing a real disservice to its young audience by misrepresenting that plant. May the producers be looking at their iPhones the next time they sit down at a picnic, and miss that patch of poison ivy. My curse be upon them.

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  1. Agree, this is dangerous. You should add at some point the “leaves of three, let them be — if it’s hairy it’s a berry” adage to help with this important plant identification as well as the advice to NEVER burn sumac or poison ivy as the resulting damage to your lungs could be fatal.

    • So true–a dear friend of mine spent two weeks in the hospital after inhaling smoke from a fire her neighbor lit to burn off a brush pile that was full of poison ivy. Up to that point she had never had the typical contact dermatitis from it, but that smoke nearly killed her!

  2. Plants are important in literature, too. What a person in literature plants in the garden of herbs may identify her opinions. I put a chinaberry tree in one of my stories because of all it represents and the presence in
    Southern lives.

  3. I agree with you. That’s just weird. I see a lot of boneheadedness about food in pop culture, too. I can’t think of a good example right now, but it’s out there.

  4. I rolled my eyes at an episode of The Walking Dead in which characters thought to use elderberry as an herbal remedy — but then picked leaves off low growing shrubs! Well, you know, you get extra-bonus-survival points for approximating, I guess.

  5. As a set designer who loves plants, this sort of mistake makes me so disappointed in the person who made it. Thorough research was a huge emphasis in my theater program — if it’s a script reference, it needs to be correct! Of course I’m sure they didn’t want to put real poison sumac behind the actress’ ear, but at least use something that looks like it!

  6. Best plant rant EVER! You are absolutely justified in not remaining silent in the face of this horror. I APPRECIATE you. Well stated.

  7. When I saw this scene, I actually got really upset at how inaccurate it was. I was hoping there was a point to it – like because they had lived in space for almost 100 years their botany books got messed up.

    Keep watching, it actually gets quite good – then it’s horrible and ‘i can’t even’, then you like oh, I’m def. watching next season – which there is one.

  8. Every time I’ve had poison sumac, I’ve definitely wish I had only walked through ferns and pansies.

    And I agree with Lisa–your rants about film flora faux pas are the best.

  9. While I agree THAT scene was ridiculous, I got obsessed with the show in general, and I don’t normally get super into TV. I even went so far as to watch the season not yet on Netflix off Amazon Prime (which I paid for just to watch). I’d give it a chance. 🙂

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