I love flowers, and growing things in general, and I always use plants as part of the setting in my books. Whether it's hedges wreathed with sweet-scented honeysuckle or scarlet poppies in a field, a meadow abandoned to stinging nettles or a wood carpeted with bluebells, using specific names adds life and colour.
Sometimes, plants can be used as more than part of the setting. In Anthem for Doomed Youth, for instance, a garden suggests the character of one of the victims--and that his widow isn't exactly heartbroken by his death:
Colonel Pelham had lived in a stuccoed post-war bungalow, painted a bilious shade of mustard yellow with a dreary olive-green front door. The contrast with the typical Kentish red-tile roof was particularly distressing.
The front garden was laid out with military precision. A rectangular patch of lawn on each side of the brick path had rectangular flowerbeds centred in each lawn, edged with low, rectangular box hedges, as was the path. The beds were planted with rigid rows of magenta rose-campion and sternly staked red-hot pokers....
...their ears were assailed by a well-bred but determined female voice floating out through an open window.
"Everything," it insisted. "The lawn, the box, the campion—hideous colour!—the lot. I'm putting in a forsythia, and rambler roses, and... What else sprawls all over the place?"
"Well, buddleia, madam, an'... But they be mortal untidy, madam!"
"Just what I want, a bit of untidiness in my life. Nasturtiums! Trailing geraniums! You can start digging everything up, Johnson, and I'll get a book to help me decide what to plant."
Even the most beautiful garden can harbour a threat. Dead in the Water begins with Daisy's arrival at her aunt's riverside house where she goes outside:
Looking down, Daisy saw a spotted brown-linen rear end backing cautiously out of the rosebed, followed by a broad-brimmed straw hat.
"Hullo, Aunt Cynthia."
"I keep telling him chopping off their heads won't kill them." Lady Cheringham, straightening, brandished a muddy-gloved and clutching a dandelion with a twelve-inch root. Her lean face, weathered by decades of tropic climes, broke into a smile. "Hullo, Daisy. Oh dear, is it past four already?"
Daisy started down. "Only quarter past. The train was dead on time and your man was waiting at the station." On the bottom step, she nearly fell over a garden syringe.
"Careful, dear! I was spraying the roses, dealing death to those dratted greenfly, when I noticed the dandelion."
"Not deadly poison, I hope? It seems to have dripped on your
"Only tobacco-water, but perhaps I'd better go and wash it off. It does stain horribly." Lady Cheringham dropped the dandelion's corpse by the sprayer. "Bister simply won't admit that hoes are useless against these brutes, but that's what comes of having a chauffeur cum gardener cum handyman."
"I rather like dandelions," Daisy confessed.
Nicotine is, of course, a deadly poison...
Gardens are a traditional place to hide a body. In The Winter Garden Mystery, I not only have a body buried in a flowerbed, but the flowers themselves draw attention to its presence:
"And that bush?" She gestured at an unhappy-looking shrub in
the middle of a bare patch of ground. "What's that?"
"Azalea, miss." He frowned, puzzled. "They bloom early in here, too, but..."
"It's terrible it looks. And where's the irises around it? Myself I planted them, the kind that's flowering now, and hardly any has come up." He stepped over the low kerb and picked his way carefully to the small bush. Most of its few remaining leaves were brown, except for one bronze-green sprig.
Daisy saw that the dark soil of the bare patch was broken by a few scattered iris shoots. "Perhaps a dog got in and dug them up and buried them again too deep," she proposed, though there was no sign of the earthworks usually left by an excavating canine.
"The azalea is dying." Owen Morgan turned, panic-stricken. "All the buds are dead. What'll her ladyship say? Please, miss, I must find Mr. Bligh."
Owen had dug a trench right across the bare patch of soil. He and Mr. Bligh stood at one end, gazing down with fascinated revulsion.
"Go on, have a look," urged Mr. Bligh.
Owen knelt in the dirt. Reaching down, he moved something at the bottom of the trench. "Oh God! Oh God!" He flung himself backwards onto his heels, his arms across his face. "It's her. It's my Grace."
We haven't even begun to consider the many beautiful deadly blooms: foxgloves, angel's trumpet, oleander, lily of the valley...the valley of death!
PS. You may recognize the title as being from Gilbert & Sullivan's Mikado. After all, Mikado is all about deciding which of the characters is to be executed...