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My low-fantasy setting features the deadly plant known as the wormberry. It produces small berries of a bright-but-overall-undecided color, all of which contain a small, edible seed. They have two distinct features:

  1. The wormberry is incomparably sweet when ripe. It follows the standard operating procedure for fruit, which is "get yourself noticed, get yourself eaten with your seeds included." But eating them with seeds included is what enables...
  2. The seeds of the wormberry are parasitic. They implant themselves in the digestive tract of the consumer and use their flesh and blood to sprout.

Once a wormberry has sprouted, it is almost always fatal. This is how it earns its name: the bodies of creatures overcome by the wormberry are shot through with roots until they extend through the skin and into the soil.

Now, the sweetness and danger of the wormberry makes it very popular with moonshiners. The high sugar content of wormberry mash produces a very strong wine, popular with the down-and-out. Some of these clandestine fermenters are even able to eat the berries whole and survive by drinking their own supply, unaware that alcohol's effects on blood pH is what's saving them.

What's the native habitat of these plants?

Note: This question is similar to You eat this plant, it eats you right back. Can it work? , which asks if it's possible for a plant to be useful in assassination via regular germination. This question differs in that it asks more for the ecology surrounding such a plant rather the mechanisms by which it kills its host.

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    $\begingroup$ It seems that the plant would have to grow extensively before exiting the body. This means that it would, for the first part of it's life-cycle, need a working heterotroph metabolism. (A metabolism that functions by consumption rather than photosynthesis.) Although there are rare plants that are occasional heterotrophs (they consume insects), all plants rely mainly on photosyntheses. This wormberry plant would not be very plant-like. It seems to me that it would be more believable as a fungus. $\endgroup$
    – cowlinator
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ @cowlinator: The fruiting bodies of (some) fungi are called mushrooms. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ I take it all back. After doing some research, it looks like there are some plants that do little or no photosynthesis, and are purely parasitic, such as Beechdrops. The Beechdrop also lives independently from its host during early stages of development, instead relying on nutrients from the seed. $\endgroup$
    – cowlinator
    Commented Apr 1, 2020 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ Just a minor point: it can't be the alcohol that saves the moonshiners, because the blood pH is stabilized in a very narrow range - 7.4, plus or minus 0.05. It could be some hormone, or maybe antibodies. If a person has been sensitized by moonshine antigens, as soon as the first tendrils penetrate the gut tunica and get in contact with the blood supply, the immune system will ensure they haven't the chance of becoming large and resistant roots. The plant has to be quite vulnerable in its first stages, and a prepared host is just too much of an opponent. $\endgroup$
    – LSerni
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ @LSerni If there is any cooking involved in the making of this beverage, the heat might be enough to kill the seeds and render them inert. It might be the berries are perfectly safe once cooked, but only eating them raw is deadly. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 17:31

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The ancestors of the plant were wild varieties that would have a different effect. They were hard, and when most herbivores ate them, they would break up the fruit and the seeds would pass through their digestive tract. The seeds would grow in the herbivores' s... dung. When an old, toothless animal would eat the fruit, it would not be digested well, get stuck in the GI, and the seeds would grow from there.

Humans noticed it and started cultivating the plant because the fruits coming out of dead animals would be tastier, or would make for better wine than grapes. In the edible form they have to be well prepared in order to not be fatal - and you eat only the shell or pulp, discarding the seeds.

This is not the only case of people eating stuff that could otherwise easily kill them. In our own world there are poisonous pufferfish which are a high cuisine thing in Japan.

Anyway, back to the plant. It ends up having other uses for humans, like allowing for a new method of Euthanasia. Also a new way of poisoning your enemies, specially those who come from distant cultures that don't know the plant.

As it is bound to happen, someone at some point will take the seed to the wilderness. They will either drop the seeds where they shouldn't, or they will drop dead because they ate the seeds. Time passes and now you have a feral variety of the fruit, growing in the wilderness close to rural areas. This one is different from the original wild variety and will kill anything that eats its fruit without removing the seeds, which means all wild herbivores such as deer and boar, and the occasional domesticated one such as a cow or goat.

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    $\begingroup$ I hadn't thought about the connection to Japanese fugu. It would be quite a contrast for the same berry used in cheap moonshine to have a place in haute couture. Sounds like exactly the thing for my story. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 16:42
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It's possible. This is called aggressive mimicry and is not uncommon in nature. The most notable quality though, is that these wormberries must resemble a much more common, harmless plant that grows in the nearby vicinity. Otherwise animals will either learn or evolve to avoid the dangerous berries.

Humans are probably not its primary prey, as humans are quite good at recognizing dangerous plants and tend to be extremely risk-averse, and we can pass knowledge between generations. It's similar to how many toxic mushrooms resemble edible ones, which is why everyone knows not to eat wild mushrooms unless you're an expert in mushroom identification. But many animals may fall victim to the berries, and some people might eat them anyway.

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    $\begingroup$ "Delectable tea? Or deadly poison?" -Uncle Iroh $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ Also, "risk-averse", not "risk-adverse". $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Aug 3, 2020 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ this is a good one because it deals with the question of why things still eat these fruit. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 4, 2020 at 2:04
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The plant could be using several strategies to reproduce. There may be a normal seed vector organism that eats the berries as part of their life cycle where they naturally die soon after (think salmon). Such a vector could need the calories to complete a reproductive cycle. The seed is nourished by the dead organism, and possibly passed on to anything that eats the dead vector (think unsuspecting bear). Various species on this world would have evolved strategies to deal with the parasite. Terrestrial scavengers often have extremely tough digestive systems so they can consume rotten food that would poison other species. The effect on humans could be completely incidental to the normal life cycle of the plant.

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well lets go a bit further. Lets say it mainly targets small animals because they can thrive easier, so maybe it likes in places with lots of rats, maybe it has changes as a result of human(or other species) interaction, I think id be wise to only have 1 in 10 of the berries be deadly so all of its prey doesn't die off (maybe this is a subspecies aside from the main one where all are deadly?). it would probably be native to some sort of forest(with many animals so they wouldn't die out) but the subspecies would live in populated areas(with rats). I think this whole thing is a great idea but it would be better for only some to be deadly. It would have an odd way of reproducing though, because the prey would turn into another plant, you could go into how different prey effect the properties of the plant. like small prey: small plant but more complex like maybe the color of the victim changes the berry color(it would make it harder to tell if its a wormberry or not). i will update if i come up with anything else.

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