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Botanicult Fiction: Getting to Know Groot

September 9, 2020

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens (with thanks to Tomasz Wiercioch)

The Flora colossi are an amazing species. Able to grow many stories tall, walk on two … trunks? … and speak after a fashion with lignified vocal cords, Flora colossi are many things that would challenge any botanist. They’re certainly too big to consider as specimens in our herbarium at RBG. How would you prepare a specimen from a gigantic, sentient woody plant anyway?

For those who saw the Marvel “The Guardians of the Galaxy” films, you’ve likely already guessed that I’m writing about Groot, the charming sentient plant with the heartwood of gold, voiced by Vin Diesel He’s a member of the Flora colossi. And he’s not just any member of that species: he may just be the last one.

Created as a species by Stan Lee (who wasn’t?), Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers, a Groot (there have been more than one) first showed up in the 1960 comic book “Tales to Astonish,” as a giant tree monster attacking a terrestrial town. He wasn’t just rampaging around for the fun of it though. He was trying to collect the town’s humans for study, like any good giant tree monster scientist naturally wood (he was finally defeated by GMO termites). Perhaps it’s a surprise that a Groot could have an intellectual side, but there’s more to a Flora colossus than meets the eye. The species’ leaders, the Arbor Masters, transmitted Photonic knowledge to their saplings to absorb by photosynthesis. Pretty handy distance learning.

The Marvel comic book universe being what it is, there have been several iterations of Groot, whose name means “Giant” in Dutch. The Groot who has appeared in the Marvel superhero films was always a bit of a rebel. As a sapling, he preferred the company of animals to his fellow trees on Planet X, his home world, and was eventually exiled for protecting a mammal. The various writers who have taken Groot on intergalactic adventures over the years since his exile have incorporated botanical ideas into his representations. He has sprouted flowers, grown tendrils, pollenated, and has been propagated many times, often by his trusty cyborg companion Rocket Raccoon.

It’s not just botanists that might like to add a Flora colossus to their collections though. In the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 we saw Taneleer Tivan, played by Benicio del Toro, try to acquire Groot as a specimen for his huge collection. Tivan, or “the Collector”, was a peculiar and extremely wealthy character who, upon seeing his first Flora colossus, offered to take it off the Guardian’s hands. Needless to say, Rocket Raccoon refused to part with his best friend. Like Groot, Tivan has a long story that is only hinted at in the films. He’s an Elder of the Universe, nearly as old as the universe itself, and the last of his own species.

I guess we’re still a long way from having a very large plant specimen like a Flora colossus in RBG’s own herbarium, but we may be closer than you think. Our biggest specimen stood nearly six feet tall and was another invasive giant: a Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). It just couldn’t talk.

The cover of “Takes to Astonish, No. 13” from November 1960, a Marvel comic book. It features the rampaging first iteration of Groot, a long way from the strong but gentle (to his friends) giant portrayed in recent films.
The cover of “Takes to Astonish, No. 13” from November 1960, a Marvel comic book. It features the rampaging first iteration of Groot, a long way from the strong but gentle (to his friends) giant portrayed in recent films.

Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of self isolation

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