Why Pop Culture Links Women and Killer Plants

Botany is seeing a mini-revival as a plot device, adding a transgressive edge to recent films like Phantom Thread and Annihilation.

Natalie Portman as Lena in 'Annihilation'
Natalie Portman as Lena in Annihilation (Paramount Pictures)

There’s an early scene in Annihilation, Alex Garland’s cerebral sci-fi-horror drama, where the biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) examines a cluster of kaleidoscopically mutated flowers. “They’re growing from the same branch structure, so it has to be the same species,” she mutters to her all-female squad of researchers. “You’d sure as hell call it a pathology if you saw this in a human.” The team, led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is tasked with exploring the Shimmer: a sinister dome of iridescent light that has consumed the Florida coastline.

In this realm, Lena and her crew encounter anthropoid shrubs, luminous deer, and houses overgrown with brightly colored moss. As the film goes on, they realize that the Shimmer’s fauna and flora are encroaching upon them and threaten to consume them entirely. But the Shimmer’s plant life is also a visual metaphor for the women’s psychological wounds—their grief, anger, and loneliness. Annihilation notably refuses to fall back on the predominantly male worldview that underlies many sci-fi classics, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Unlike in these films, where women are primarily defined by their relationships with and duty to men, Annihilation’s female characters mostly seek to interrogate the purpose of existence itself.

It’s no coincidence that Annihilation is both a feat of feminist storytelling—for exploring how its characters question their humanity beyond the fixity of womanhood—and a major step forward for killer plants as a pop-cultural symbol. Lethal vegetation has long been a metaphor for female disobedience, in Western mythology and in society at large. This concept has developed over time across two main trajectories. In the first, dangerous botany embodies patriarchal anxieties over female access to education and wisdom. The tale of original sin, for example, implicitly cautions against curiosity in women: Eve’s act of eating a fruit from the tree of knowledge sets the stage for all evil on Earth. In Greek mythology, the goddess Hecate was seen as a morally ambivalent figure because she protected families from harm, but was also associated with poisonous herbs administered in witchcraft. Such stories offer an allegorical warning that women can’t be trusted with knowledge, lest they use it to bring disorder to mankind.

Killer plants have also served a second narrative function: They offer a vision of how masculine aggression can be countered with weaponized domesticity. Consider some of the most compelling female characters to appear recently on the big screen, and who have harnessed their botanical knowledge to kill or injure. In Lady Macbeth, The Beguiled, and Phantom Thread, women use poisonous mushrooms to eliminate or debilitate the men who antagonize them. Strictly speaking, mushrooms are fungi and not plants, but they’re functionally similar to the latter in that they’re grown and harvested for food, and are relatively immobile. This makes them the perfect foil for the cliché of docile femininity.

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled pits Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and her bevy of schoolgirls against a violent, manipulative lothario (Colin Farrell) who has overstayed his welcome at their antebellum Virginia school. So they cook him his favorite dish, with a deadly spin. In William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, the initially meek Katherine (Florence Pugh) kills her brutal father-in-law via the same modus operandi. In Phantom Thread, the massive power imbalance between the Svengali couture designer Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his adoring employee and lover Alma (Vicky Krieps) is reversed when she spikes his tea with toxic mushrooms and reduces him to a feverish, infantile mess.

But these movies are only subversive insofar as they derail common expectations of seeing women as victims rather than as perpetrators. Beyond reaffirming the age-old cultural stereotype of the female poisoner, these three films hew to a similar pattern: The women manage to cleanly extricate themselves from threatening situations, and the innocuousness of the mushrooms means the blame can lie elsewhere. While told with great finesse, The Beguiled, Lady Macbeth, and Phantom Thread still arguably fulfill a sexist demand, ensuring that the attractiveness and perceived vulnerability of these women remain intact, even when they’re being transgressive.

The connection between deadly flora and women goes back centuries. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1844 short story, Rappaccini’s Daughter, revolves around a young maiden who herself becomes poisonous, having been raised in a toxic garden. The Woman Eater, a low-budget British horror film from the ’50s, features a tree that can resurrect the dead if it’s allowed to feast on women. The subject of Janet Fitch’s 1999 novel, White Oleander, is a femme fatale who kills her cheating lover with the venomous flower of the book’s title, and leaves her daughter abandoned to a string of foster homes.

The history of botany can illuminate how the belligerent plant relates to fears of female rebellion. As Leila McNeill wrote in a piece for The Atlantic, botany began to be thought of as a “proper science for women” during the 19th century, since it could “teach young women the ways of morality and domestic life.” (Despite the wave of women entering the discipline, they were excluded from the upper echelons of the academic establishment until the 1900s.) Botany was also often fettered to expertise in gardening, another activity that fell within the realm of the feminine. The idealized woman was one who could embellish her home and feed her family by tapping her understanding of the plants that she tended to. The benign, healing qualities that are typically attributed to plants also apply to anachronistic conceptions of womanhood.

In The Beguiled, these assumptions about plant cultivation and gender are turned on their head when Farrell’s character, Corporal McBurney, is sent to work in the garden by the women, in exchange for them nursing him back to health and shielding him from Confederate soldiers. The camera’s lustful gaze is female, focusing on the tautness of his body as he prunes the roses and digs the flowerbeds. He spends most of his time among the plants, which form the setting for his flirtatious overtures toward each of the women. The wicked irony is that McBurney, who prides himself on his virility and swarthy looks, is confined to a traditionally feminine role in tending the garden. It’s the women who venture out of the house into the woods to find the mushrooms that will eventually kill him.

Phantom Thread provides an interesting contrast to The Beguiled in that Alma doesn’t actually want to get rid of the difficult man in her life. She loves Reynolds and yearns for more tenderness and respect, not content with playing the role of another obedient mannequin in his fascist kingdom of silk and lace. The first time she poisons his tea, he falls terribly ill, realizes how much he needs her, and asks her to marry him. As soon as he reverts to his old ways, Alma attempts the same trick. This time, Reynolds discovers what his wife has been up to, but—in the movie’s big, queasy “twist”—he doesn’t mind. He embraces the fluctuations of power in their relationship, and submits to her machinations. If Alma is the gardener, then he is the plant; and when a plant begins to grow in an unruly fashion, it must be trimmed down to size.

Others have argued that toxic botany offers women a way to equal the score with men. In a piece for Vulture, Andy Crump called poisonous mushrooms “2017’s most surprising metaphor for women’s liberation”; he described its use across The Beguiled, Phantom Thread and Lady Macbeth as “playing … a small role in women’s emancipation from the patriarchy.” But this isn’t quite true. The female characters in these three films may have rid themselves of the men abusing or terrorizing them, but the “freedom” they attain is frequently fragile because it is based off an identity of subjugation.

If anything, turning to poison appears to erode their humanity and capacity for compassion, rather than elevate them to the status of empowered beings. Katherine’s transformation toward the end of Lady Macbeth shows her to be sociopathic and obsessed with her own immediate pleasure. The Beguiled’s Alicia (Elle Fanning) has no reason to jeopardize her relationships with the other women in her pursuit of Corporal McBurney, but she does so anyway out of boredom and narcissism. The unceremonious way in which they dispose of McBurney’s corpse is also a sign that the murder has twisted them in some ineffable way.

The use of poisonous mushrooms isn’t about women playing some zero-sum game with controlling men. What the trope really does is prompt viewers to consider what female agency can look like in situations that are overwhelmingly shaped by sexism—and it’s not a pretty sight. The women mimic the language of violence articulated by the men in their lives, in one of the only ways available to them. Unable to emancipate themselves fully from the trappings of their gender roles, their only recourse is to do harm before they suffer further. In one of the last scenes of Lady Macbeth, when Katherine implicates her lover and maid in the murder of a child, her face is eerily impassive, mirroring the expression of her husband early in the film when he regards her with cruel indifference. In that moment, they are one and the same.

Annihilation stands apart from these films, in part, because its portrayal of killer plants rejects the cliché of passive women reacting violently only when backed into a corner. Lena and her teammate Josie (Tessa Thompson) both make their own decision to confront the mutated flora, without coercion from the other women. Josie chooses to become part of the Shimmer, telling Lena that, “Ventress wants to face it, you want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those.” When vines begin protruding from Josie’s veins, the viewer might recoil in disgust, but the scene where she wanders away to become a tree is oddly beautiful and moving.

Lena, too, is the keeper of her own destiny. After making a terrible discovery in the film’s climactic scene in a lighthouse, Lena resolves to return to the outside world. She crawls into an underground glade shaped by a tangle of roots to confront the core of the virulent entity that shapes the Shimmer. When she emerges victorious, the crystal trees around the lighthouse collapse. One woman is assimilated by the killer plants, while another defeats them; but, crucially, neither finds herself totally annihilated.

What makes the botany in Annihilation so unique is the psychological, as opposed to purely physical, danger it poses. The women’s journey to the lighthouse is founded on a number of moral quandaries; every flower and leaf they pass chips away at their sanity a little more. The team’s leader, Dr. Ventress, willfully endangers their lives multiple times, and Anya (Gina Rodriguez) takes the others hostage in a fit of paranoia when she uncovers a secret about Lena’s past.

The menacing botany in Annihilation thwarts the good-versus-evil conflict, instead offering a verdant backdrop for characters who are morally ambiguous and relatable. Lena and her team aren’t saviors of the world: They’re frequently aloof, lose their temper, and even resort to sabotage in their quest to figure out what the Shimmer means to each of them. But they’re also capable of forgiveness, sacrifice, and camaraderie. “We’re all damaged goods here,” the anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) ruefully tells Lena earlier in the film. The sentiment is an apt foundation for a more daring form of cinema that grapples with the unwieldy, complex texture of humanity.