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Botanicult Fiction: The Red Weed from Mars

May 5, 2020

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

British author H. G. Wells (1866–1946) was a prolific and imaginative contributor to classic science fiction. His stories like The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon, and the Island of Doctor Moreau thrilled his late Victorian audiences and helped build his literary legacy. He also wrote popular science books and works of social criticism.

It would be hard to single out one work that best exemplifies Wells, but The War of the Worlds (published in 1897) might be his most famous work. Set largely in England, the book details a brutal attack by intelligent beings from Mars, who appear to be trying to take control of earth as their world is dying. The story established numerous conventions that appear in later stories, and famously in 1937 was used by Orson Welles in 1938 as a radio play. Many people initially thought the broadcast was a real news item, not fiction. Wells’ story has since been retold frequently in film and television.

Hitching a ride with the Martians in Wells’ novel was a single Martian plant: the red weed. This ground-hugging vine spread out from the Martian landing sites, covering entire neighbourhoods and colouring the landscape. Like the Martians themselves, the red weed eventually succumbed not to human intervention but to the action of earthly microbes.

The red weed appears to be the first example of an invasive alien plant in science fiction. It certainly will not be the last!

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