PiPC6: Weirwoods

Plants in Popular Culture 6: “A Song of Ice and Fire” (Game of Thrones)

This is part 6 of an occasional series on my blog about plants in popular culture where certain plants are of central importance to a story. I mostly work from memory and try to link them to actual plant science here in the real world (which I also do from memory, though do look up some things if I am utterly clueless about a plant/process). I am open for suggestions to this series.

Needless to say, there are some spoilers here (not major ones, I don’t think, but spoilers nonetheless).

I am into book 4 in the Game of Thrones series, but I think that’s far enough to talk about some of the plant life in Westeros and Essos. I’m sure more may be revealed about Weirwoods particularly in subsequent books, but I can always come back and update this post; please don’t spoil anything for me!

Plants in Westeeros and Essos are part of what defines the world in ‘A Game of Thrones’ in both big and small ways. The Maesters in Oldtown have come up with all sorts of potions, and poisons and tinctures from all over the Realm. Most commonly used given all the wounding and bloodiness is the ‘Milk of the Poppy’; what we might call opium in this world. Plants are also the sources of scents to make what seems like a rather dirty world at least smell fresh. And of course, there are the visible plants and forests that define various regions of Westeros and Essos.

The Trident has it’s forested regions, The Southron region ruled by High Garden is a bountiful breadbasket, including The Arbor, an entire island devoted to wine (I want to live there)! Dorne is desert. Heading North, there’s the Harrowlands and marshes near The Neck. Then that gives way to sentinel trees that are evergreen. North of The Wall, there’s the haunted forest that then gives way to mountains and The land of always winter. I don’t know where Benjen Stark is, but he may well be one of ‘The Others’ coming to invade as winter descends.

In Essos, there’s the great Dothraki sea, a massive grassland where the Khalassars ride free. The rest of the continent seems largely devoid of plants, though perhaps they’re just not well defined in the book series– The Free Cities all seem like they’re in rather barren lands, relying on trade to survive. Outside the slave cities, there are agricultural fields. In Mereen, before Daenerys Targaryan invades, the fields are burned. I’m sure it’s a military tactic to this day; burning food supplies to deny invaders or to starve out a population.

There is one plant, native solely to Westeros as far as I’ve read that I’d like to discuss that are of particular significance: The white barked, red-leafed Weirwood trees.

From ‘Game of Thrones’, HBO. ‘Winter is Coming’ S1:E1 Source: http://fangirlisms.com/2011/05/06/game-of-thrones-episode-1-winter-is-coming/3/

My recollection of the story is that the Weirwoods were all over Westeros in the days of The first people to populate Westeros: ‘The Children of The Forest’ worshipped the heart trees and carved faces in many of them. The bone white smooth bark contrasted with the blood red sap and 5-pointed blood red leaves (like the Canadian flag?) make for haunting imagery. The Weirwood is apparently a deciduous tree, shedding it’s leaves when winter comes— an unpredictable occurrence in this world with non-standard length seasons. How plants adapt to varying conditions is a very real question in plant biology, although our conditions on Earth are more stable than those in the Game of Thrones world.  When the Andals invaded Westeros from across the sea (From Essos? Or a continent to the South that’s not in the present world map? Asshai, where Melisandre is from isn’t even on the Game of Thrones World Map; so there’s more to the world). The Andals worshipped ‘The Seven’ and the children of the forest as well as the Weirwoods went away for the most part except on The island of Faces and within castle keeps where Weirwoods are ‘heart trees’ and people can observe The Old Gods. Weirwoods do grow wild North of The Neck, suggesting that Northmen and the Wildlings beyond the wall may be descended in part from the lost children of The Forest; or that they rejected The Seven after settling there.

The eerie Weirwoods stand almost as silent sentinels, witnessing everything that goes on where they grow, perhaps only the ones with faces, such as those standing in the center of castle keeps as heart trees in their contemplative groves. It is apparent there is some magic to Weirwoods; they must grow slowly over time and are likely ancient and yet their carved bark never heals; red sap constantly leaks out of the wounded areas and does not kill them. Weirwood is used as a material for construction as well as bows and is apparently highly prized as it does not rot and is also extremely strong. The latter two facts are fascinating from a plant physiology point of view. Wounds that don’t heal and wood that doesn’t rot; Weirwood clearly has remarkable anti-disease and anti-herbivory/insect pest invasion defense mechanisms. The heart trees at least all grown in great pools , so their water source is not an issue; even though they apparently can grow without requiring flooding.

Their blood red leaves must photosynthesize some how; when leaves turn red in the fall here in New England, that is a light absorbing pigment, anthocyanin usually there to deal with plant stress to light; but that isn’t quite blood red, it’s more purple in hue. So the Weirwoods may have a novel red pigment that is optimized to absorb the Westeros sunlight, perhaps taking advantage of part of the spectrum other plants can’t. This is all wild speculation on my part, of course, but if Weirwoods absorb light in the infrared, green and blue parts of the spectrum and let red light reflect, the leaves would appear red to our eyes. There are other kinds of photosystems out there, besides the ones we’re familiar with in plants.

There is something mystical about Weirwoods (a cultural significance that few plants enjoy); it’s respected all over the realm. And people with the green vision may be able to tap into them and see what they see or witness what they have witnessed in their thousand-year-old faces. I think I also sort of rembmer thinking after a heart tree was described that Weirwoods formed a massive underground root system and may indeed be all one massive plant covering all of Westeros; such vegetative propagation is very real, even amongst trees. It could be weirwoods, give the right cues, could spring up as if by magic all over Westeros again as their roots may not have been destroyed. The Eyerie, in the Vale of Arryn, does not have a heart tree. They tried planting one there, but it died; perhaps due to the high elevation or perhaps due to a lack of connection to it’s fellow Weirwood trees (it can’t quite be due to cold alone as they live North of The Wall). Also, I’ve just gotten to Dorne in the books, but haven’t heard that there are Weirwoods in the desert there or even as a heart tree in Sunspear. Perhaps that is why as a reader shifts from region to region when reading, the Weirwoods in some cases seem to have similar expressions; or is that just the perception of individual characters?

When winter does finally come, I wonder if the Weirwoods will lose their leaves or if they go dormant like deciduous trees do in the winters here. They are certainly hardy trees, able to survive a lot, but susceptible to The Andals’ axes. Also, as yet, there’s not such thing as a Weirwood flower; curious to know if those exist.

Winter is coming, that’s clear. How will the Weirwoods handle it?

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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.

2 thoughts on “PiPC6: Weirwoods”

  1. Hey Ian,

    As a fan of both the Game of Thrones books and natural history, I wondered about similar things regarding the biology of the weirwoods. The first time I read about them, it reminded me if red algae and birch trees! I wonder if it could also be some sort of symbiotic relationship! Pondering things like this feels like exercises in Exobiology :)

    1. It does fell like an exercise in exobiology :). I too thought of birch trees, though in the books, there’s not much to say that Weirwoods even have bark. One reason I love Sci-fi/fantasy…makes us think about their real-world parallels, if any.

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