Traditional societies are often linked inextricably to the plants around them. Even in fiction, plants are sometimes portrayed as central to a culture. In the fictional African country of Wakanda in Marvel comic books and films, the Heart-shaped Herb was not just a fixture of the landscape: it was a king-maker.
In the story of The Black Panther, created in 1966 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Heart-shaped Herb is endemic to a mountain of vibranium, a metallic element known only from that spot in sub-Saharan Africa. Arriving on earth aeons ago as an asteroid, vibranium presents many astonishing characteristics, as befits a comic-book meteor. Its subtle radiation altered plants in the area, allowing them to absorb its power into their tissues. In the case of the Heart-shaped Herb, the plant gives super powers to those of certain royal bloodlines who consume it, and it also acts a potent psychoactive drug. In the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther, we see T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, transformed into the titular superhero by consuming a special preparation of the herb as part of a sacred ritual.
Two real-world counterparts to elements of this story are of great interest to botanists: plants that can absorb metals from the soil, and the psychoactive effects of some plant preparations used in cultural practices. Some plants are able to bio-accumulate soluble metals from the soil, such as zinc, cooper, arsenic, and nickel, among others. This fact is used in the process of phytoremediation of polluted soils. If these plants are allowed to grow on contaminated ground, they can be harvested and processed to capture the metals. The perennial herb Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), for example, is grown world-wide for medicinal purposes but also can update metals like cadmium and manganese from the soil.
Far more important culturally is the use of plants by traditional and Indigenous peoples as part of spiritual practices. In the 2018 film, those who consume the extract of the Heart-shaped Herb are transported to “the ancestral plain” with the help of guides. There they have highly individual experiences that help them upon their return. This overall pattern is common to shamanistic societies in many parts of the world and reflects the deep connection between culture and plants that develop in traditional societies. Canadian anthropologist and botanist Wade Davis has written extensively on this connection in books like One River (1996), noting that these are not recreational experiences but connect the individual to profound spiritual and even medical healing.
In the Black Panther, the Heart-Shaped Herb was not only the means to achieve superpowers. It was used to connect the king to his ancestors each time it was used. This allowed the king to in turn draw on their wisdom and experiences in guiding his own difficult decisions. In the 2018 film, Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa uses the guidance of his late father to be a strong king who saves his nation, and ultimately as we see in later MCU films, the world. Wakanda Forever!
By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens.
Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of self isolation