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Botanicult Fiction: The Flora of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth

April 22, 2020

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science at Royal Botanical Gardens

It’s hard to imagine a landscape without plants: they’re nearly everywhere on earth. Plants are also crucial in imagined landscapes. Few such landscapes are as rich or as well-loved as Middle Earth, the creation of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Tolkien was an English professor of literature, a poet, and a brilliant creator of worlds. During the First World War he wrote fantasy stories for his children from the front. Over subsequent decades he wrote hundreds of stories, most set in Middle Earth, an imagined ancient version of England and western Europe. Tolkien populated Arda, his version of Earth, with a complete flora. The plants ranged from simple and familiar to exotic and fantastic. He so loved his imagined forests that he also created Ents, shepherds to tend them. Ents looked like walking trees but were not trees at all. They were made by the spirit Yavanna to tend over the Olvar, her living things rooted in the ground. In Middle Earth some trees became more like Ents over time too, the Huorns, which could move and make sounds.

For an introduction to the botany of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, see Walter and Graham Judd’s 2017 book “Flora of Middle Earth: Plants of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Legendarium” from Oxford University Press. This lively book lets you explore Middle Earth through the eyes of a botanist, encountering both familiar plants and pure fantasy. A great read before second breakfast!

Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading pleasure.