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  • Marie McKinsey

Right Plants, Wrong Season?

Updated: Nov 23, 2022

One of the differences between Outlander - the Book and Outlander - the TV series is the time of year the story begins. In the book, Claire and Frank go to the Scottish Highlands for a second honeymoon in springtime. Their trip happens to coincide with the time of year that Beltane, one of the ancient Celtic fire festivals, is celebrated. The filming of the TV series, however, began last fall, the time of year that coincides with the festival of Samhain. The first episode of the show has Frank explaining what he knows about Samhain. This is followed by a magical scene in which local women perform an ancient Druid dance ritual just as the sun is rising at Craigh na Dun, with Claire and Frank hiding in the woods nearby to watch.

Forget-me-nots Outlander

As far as I am concerned, starting the story at Samhain doesn't make any difference to the story line. Readers and viewers alike will get that the Highlands, even in the 20th century, was a place where superstition and the "auld stories" were very much a part of the culture. The time of year has no bearing on that understanding.

But from a botanical point of view, the time of year does matter. Beltane and Samhain are six months apart. Plants that are blooming on May 1 are likely nowhere to be found on November 1. In Episodes 1 and 3 of the TV show, plants play important roles in the story. But the plants that are featured are herbs and flowers of Beltane, not Samhain.

I'm not saying that this ruins the story, necessarily. While it may be a fantasy to believe that you could find a healthy clutch of forget-me-nots blooming in a Highland wood in November, that's still what the show needs. There are readers who have created Claire-and-Outlander-themed gardens in their back yards and have tended them for years. They know these plants and have an attachment to them. They would be upset, I think, if the little blue flowers they expect to see at the standing stones were replaced with something more likely to bloom at the end of October. Which would be what? Mushrooms? Sorry, no. That scene needs forget-me-nots.

I believe we can suspend disbelief in favor of good storytelling. Especially when we get to Episode 3. There, in scenes not from the book, we find the case of a young boy who has eaten lily of the valley leaves, mistaking them for wood garlic. Lily of the valley is highly toxic, and he presents with symptoms that include bradycardia (slow heart rate), constricted pupils, tremors and hallucinations. The tremors and hallucinations, in particular, have everyone believing that he is possessed by the devil. Everyone but Claire, of course. She believes the boy is sick and needs medical care, not an exorcism.

Lily of the valley Outlander

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) foliage in late August. The leaves are beginning to dry out and turn brown. These herbaceous perennials die down

in fall and reemerge in spring.

Their fragrant, bell-shaped flowers bloom late April - May.

The poisoning story is believable - people confuse the two plants often. But it usually happens in spring when they are foraging for wood garlic (called ramps in parts of the US and Canada). It isn't likely to happen in fall when both plants are either going dormant or are already there. That said, how many viewers would know that?

When both lily of the valley and wood garlic are blooming in spring, it is easy to tell the difference. Lily of the valley has fragrant, drooping, bell-shaped flowers. Wood garlic has flowers held upright that look like a cluster of stars as you'll see in the video. It pays to know your Outlander Plants - be careful out there!

Claire treats the boy with a decoction of belladonna (also known as deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna), an extraordinarily risky move given the difficulty of getting the dosage right under the best of circumstances. She could have as easily killed him as cured him. The scene where we wait to see if her remedy is going to work is riveting. The whole story, scary Father Bain and all, powerfully illustrates the contrast between 18th century and 20th century world views. It makes for some great drama.

Still, the plant geek in me wonders where she got the deadly nightshade. In May, I can take you out in my neighborhood and show you those plants. By November, the best way for me to identify one of them is to go back to a spot where I saw them in spring and hope the birds have left a stray berry or two on the stems as a clue. (The berries are not toxic to birds.) Depending on the weather, there may be a few leaves left - or not. Perhaps Claire found the decoction in Davie Beaton's stash? Does it matter? In terms of storytelling, I dinna think so.

These little yellow Lily of the Valley berries, that you see above, have set by late August. They will ripen to a red-orange color in fall. These berries are highly toxic and are more likely to be the cause of poisoning in fall than someone eating the leaves by mistake.

In a perfect world, filming of Outlander would have begun in early spring, and instead of growing plants in a green house, the crew could have found them in nature. But that isn't how it worked out. In all other ways except the seasons, the characteristics and uses of the plants are accurate in the TV version, in keeping with what readers have come to expect because of Diana Gabaldon's meticulous research.

As filming of the show progresses, especially now that Starz has signed on for a second season, I think the Outlander TV team will be able to synch plants with their respective seasons. Given the attention to detail we've seen from them in all aspects of production, I expect nothing less.

In the meantime, I am loving the series and hope you are, as well. Episode 3 was my favorite so far because as a long time reader it was nice to be surprised with a new storyline and because it gives Claire's plant knowledge an opportunity to shine.


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