Professor Sprout Goes to District 12 and the Arena: Some ‘Hunger Games’ Plant and Berry Thoughts

by Elizabeth on September 17, 2010

As I’ve mentioned, I’m using  The Hunger Games this year in my ENG 111 (Expository writing) classes.  I was just puttering about finding some images to use in class discussion when I came across some interesting material on Katniss’s namesake. So I thought it might be fun to flip a few pages of the treasured family plant book to ponder why Katniss’s name is both symbolic and prophetic while also looking at a few other pertinent wild botanical samples that crop up as people and themes in the books.

“Find yourself”—Believe it or don’t, Katniss is a real plant. When I first read the book, the name seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember if it was an actual name or a regional corruption of another word. We already have plenty of plant names that have gone through linguistic transformations. My favorite is “Jellico” (some of my family is from Jellico Creek, Kentucky), which is actually “angelica.” But Katniss really is a real plant name used now. It’s a genus of pond plants ( a friend of mine has some that may still be photogenic enough for a picture, but here’s a botanical sketch in the meantime).

Of course, Katniss herself tells us that the plant is an aquatic one with edible roots. As some folks have pointed out already, it is appropriate that the ever-practical survivor Katniss is named for a hardy plant that provides an excellent source of nutrition, but the name itself also connects beautifully with our Mockingjay. The katniss plant grows in several areas of the world, including, obviously, the southeastern US, and it has been used historically by a number of indigenous people and settlers, so it  has numerous common names, some of which are very interesting: it is known as duck-potato, appropriate for someone whose sister always has a duck tail (see this post and its follow up for some more thoughts on the bird symbolism in the novels); but also as swan potato, wapatoo, tule potato, and, most commonly, as arrowhead, a name reflected in its Latin moniker—Sagittaria (or “belonging to an arrow”; the constellation Sagittarius, of course, is an archer ).

It does sort of resemble an arrowhead,  but could there possibly be a better plant name for Katniss, the best archer since Robin Hood? Katniss’s epic journey is even framed by two arrows: the one she shoots at the Gamemakers’ roast pig (which inadvertently gives her a score to make her a contender in the 74th Hunger Games and gets the attention of Plutarch Heavensbee) and the one she redirects from Snow to assassinate Coin before she can become an equally dangerous tyrant.

Though our hopes for a big Mr. Everdeen conspiracy theory have not materialized, by choosing this name for his daughter (it seems unlikely it was Mom’s choice, as it’s a wild plant), he has not only given her a survival clue since she can eat the roots whenever she finds them, but he has also, prophetically, set his daughter up as the Diana-like archer paragon.  How could Katniss be anything but a survivor who craves water to quench her flames and uses a bow to create her image and save her world?

Ashes of Roses: Prim’s name is also critical to her character. Although parts of the sturdy wildflower evening primrose are also edible, it is known more for its medicinal uses, appropriate for the medically minded Prim, who longs to be a doctor before her desire to help the injured leads her to a death trap.  One of its names, king’s-heal-all, indicates this value. Researchers are still looking into the benefits of evening primrose oil, which is being used to treat everything from rheumatoid arthritis to gynecological problems. It is also a nice ingredient in hand creams, working as a softening agent (many of those creams also include goat’s milk!). Gentle Prim is both a healer and a softening agent herself, rounding off Katniss’s rough edges and inspiring affection in everyone who knows her.

To most people, though , evening primrose is primarily a decorative plant, its charming (generally yellow in the wild) flowers a cheerful roadside accent. Although it usually blooms later than the early spring of the end of Mockingjay, perhaps environmental changes have bumped up its schedule. Like Prim herself, the plant is cheerful, lovely, and bright, often thriving in areas other plants don’t want. It will grow nearly everywhere, turning even ugly little patches of fairly useless dirt into gardens. Prim, too,  thrives in an ugly, destructive environment, bringing beauty and light wherever she goes. And, like Prim, who makes herself at home in District 13, or anywhere else she goes, primroses can adapt and grow in nearly any environment, although, interestingly, they are not common west of the Rockies (the region of the Capitol, where Prim herself dies).

The primrose flowers are rather tricky for bees to pollinate; they have a funny shape, and the stigma is actually a cross-shape, as you may have noticed on the second part of  the recent and wonderful unlocking series by our headmaster.

Wear it with a difference: The primrose plant resembles, to a degree, the common rue that gives its name to the Tribute from 11 in whom Katniss finds both an ally and an image of Prim. Rue, the plant, is an evergreen, appropriate for the child from sunny 11, and historically, is a very important medicinal plant, hence  its name, which comes from the Latin for “to set free.”  Because Katniss’s relationship with Rue and reaction to the girl’s death begins to set in motion the rebellion, this name is a perfect fit.

Unfortunately, misusing rue can really set a person free from the bonds of earth: used improperly, it is fatal, and poor Rue, who finds freedom only in death, reflects that duality. Symbolically, it stands for regret, and that is undoubtedly an appropriate emotion for Katniss in her relationship with the child who so resembles her sister. Some mention has already been made of literary rue, particularly in Paradise Lost, and most folks who have heard of rue in a literary context did so courtesy of poor mad Ophelia, but that is a whole different can of plants from our botanical study, so we’ll need to cover that separately. (Although Potter-philes will be intrigued to note that rue is impervious to basilisks)

Nightlock, nightlock, nightlock: I make no great claims to be some great Appalachian herb-woman, but I was “dead” sure from the start that nightlock was Collins’s creation. We do have some stuff one ought not to eat growing in the hills and hollars, but nightlock, I suspect, is a genetic mutation, or even a mutt, planted intentionally by the Capitol just as the tracker jacker nests were scattered on purpose.

It most resembles pokeweed berries, which are such a gorgeous dark purple that they are used as dyes, and, I always found, make swell ingredients in childhood concoctions, though only if one doesn’t mind big pink stains on one’s T-shirt. Though the berries are poisonous (the young plants are edible, and quite tasty!), they certainly are not as potent as nightlock. Some arthritis sufferers have even been known to eat a single berry a day  (a practice I do NOT advise!). Perhaps the potent purple berries in Panem are a hybrid of poke and deadly nightshade, which would explain the name. In any case, I’m happy we don’t have anything this deadly lurking in the brush now; the snakes are worry enough!

There is much more to be said about the plant life in The Hunger Games and its use as names; I’ll put some more up on the Hawthorne family later, but in the meantime, I hope all you green-thumbed readers will jump into the conversation!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Eeyore September 17, 2010 at 9:34 am

Thanks for all the information about the names and the plants. I looked up Katniss when I was reading and found that it was a real edible root. But I didn’t look up primrose, thinking I knew all about the flower. I had no idea what a perfect name that was for Prim. And as for rue, I didn’t at all connect that to a real plant.

Nightlock, however, made me think of nightshade that grows wild in western Washington. When we first came here, it was the one my sister-in-law pointed out to me. She was afraid that we might accidentally mistake it for the many edible things in the forests around here. Here, it’s a red berry that can be mistaken for huckleberries. It’s actually not as round and is a much brighter red than the little huckleberries, though. We used to have several of those in our back yard and made huckleberry pancakes when the girls picked enough of them (great way to keep them busy). I guess there are many varieties of nightshade so it doesn’t always look the same in different parts of the country.

It does sound like Collins created nightlock, perhaps using variations of the many poisonous berries and plants. Does she ever say in the book where they got the nightlock? Is it something that they created? I don’t remember, and I’ve loaned my books to my daughter.

Elizabeth September 17, 2010 at 10:15 am

Nightlock is evidently growing wild in District 12, as Katniss learned about it in the woods with her father, but, as it doesn’t fit exactly with a plant native to Appalachia now, it is apparently some sort of mutation (or muttation!). Nightshade grows around the eastern US, too (the scary kind, not the member of the nightshade family we eat–tomatoes!)

PK9 September 20, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I think “nightlock” is a literary combination of “nightshade” (from “deadly nightshade”) and “hemlock, which is another poisonous plant.

PK9 November 18, 2010 at 6:53 pm

About a month ago, I was randomly watching “Survivorman” and the guy was talking about the perils of stonefish, which are very poisonous. He then showed a plant whose leaves “when chewed up and put into the wound” can counteract the poison. I immediately thought of the trackerjackers and Rue’s leaves. I had no idea this was based off of real life.

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