Lily of the Valley.

I’m starting a series of posts on plants in pop culture. Not the boring standard “Can we go for coffee some time?” in passing mentions, but plants that are integral to a series/movie. ‘Breaking Bad’ is up first. So season 3 and 4 spoiler alerts in this post. I also have not seen the last 5 or 6 episodes of the show (waiting for it to pop up on Netflix), so my analysis might be incomplete.

The first one I want to discuss is the Lily of the Valley from ‘Breaking Bad’ (Link goes to the Breaking Bad Wiki talking about the plot points).

There’s a scene where Walter White, in what seems like a particularly desperate time in fighting his boss and rival Gus Fring is sitting on his patio at home and he looks over at the table and sees the Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) plant sitting in its pot and he just stares at it. At this point in the show, Walt has done some bad things, but still seems to come off as an awkward neophyte criminal/meth cook.

According to Mental Floss, it’s a plant that’s not native to New Mexico where the show is set, though easily could be found in a garden there- it is commonly used in gardens because it smells very good apparently. That lovely smell hides the fact tha the entire plant is poisonous. Another interesting aspect of the plant, again, according to Mental Floss is that is is vegetatively apomictic; meaning it can propagate itself by growing ‘runners’ underground, having them pop up out of the ground and form a new plant. Some plants can do cool stuff like that. In fact, it’s long been a trait sought after for agriculturally important crops like Maize, though so far as I know, no one has succeeded in engineering this trait into a plant that doesn’t have it (Monsanto may be on the case however…that’s wild speculation on my part).

Back to ‘Breaking Bad’ and just how this plant plays a pivotal role in the show. After Walt is thinking on the patio next to the Lily of the Valley, the child (Brock) of Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend is suspected of being poisoned. With what, it’s not clear, but Jesse figures out because of a missing cigarette that he and Walt had packed with ricin- another extremely potent plant poison from Castor bean that inhibits your body’s cells from making new proteins. The ricin is something that Walt and Jesse wanted to use to kill Gus and I think wanted to use on someone else earlier in the series as well- though it has never been deployed. My understanding of ricin is that it works quickly, even in a very small dose- so fast that you wouldn’t make it to a hospital before your heart stopped.

Walt convinces Jesse that it must have been Gus who poisoned Brock- as he, a teacher, never would poison a child. This gets an ambivalent Jesse back on Walt’s side in his war with Gus. In the end, it is revealed that Brock wasn’t poisoned by ricin, but Lily of the Valley. In a truly incredible scene, Gus is killed. You can’t imagine that anything could trump that scene, but then, there’s Walt on his patio again. He sits down and gives a look to the pot with the lily in it….and it’s then, right then, the audience understands just how diabolical Walt is. How evil, even. Just how ambitious. The lengths he’s willing to go to get what he wants. All that from two scenes where Walt looks at a plant- wow. All credit to Brian Cranston for his acting, but the prop and storyline really make the scene pop.

What I find really interesting is the use of Lily of the Valley, ricin and heroin in the show- all three products of plants, unlike the meth which is synthetically made. Meth represents full control over a chemical process whereas the natural drugs/poisons all introduce entropy into the show’s story line. I find it really cool that there’s that contrast. The human-made chemistry represents order whereas nature is chaotic.

I’m sure other culture writers much better at picking these things apart have written about this, but I thought I’d give my take on it. My intention is to make this a recurring series on my blog. I’m not sure what the next installment will be yet, so stay tuned.

Ever on and on.



Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

4 thoughts on “Lily of the Valley.”

  1. Hi :) Your blog came up in the google search that happened after I binge watched BREAKING BAD. The lily of the valley detail really threw me, I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief and let myself think that this plant might be growing in a pot in the full sun next to a pool in New Mexico, as it tends to require a moist soil and doesn’t produce berries until it has finished blooming.

    1. Yeah, I can’t claim to know if people grow it in New Mexico or not. My sense was they sell it pretty commonly at places like Wal-mart or Home Depot as a decorative plant, one that turns out to be poisonous if the berries are consumed. Still, a chilling scene with a pot of flowers.

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