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In my fantasy novel, I'm writing about a society of merfolk. They're well developed and have city states, but they don't have very good farming practices. As part of the story focuses on this, I am trying to improve my depiction of the underwater crops.

In my study, seaweed is the only underwater plant we seem to eat, so I'm having to create my own. I've come up with several cultivars of produce, notably an asparagus like stalk plant, a starch bulb plant, and a gourd-like fruit. My problem with this is that it feels like my plants are not native to the ocean, but only transplanted from land.

So, how can I improve my plants, either by adding limitations, or by adding specific underwater traits? Or or, are there any specific underwater plants I can alter to better serve as food?

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There are some common adaptations among aquatic plants. For example, an aerenchyma, which is where the plant's ground tissue is spongy and filled with air, or feathery leaves for extracting carbon dioxide

On the specific crops, here are some ideas:

As asparagus vegetables are just the shoot, I don't see why they couldn't be any form at all. If you do want them to look like actual asparagus, then you don't need to change much as asparagus already looks pretty aquatic to me

'Starch bulb plant' seems a bit too vague to think about, so my only advice is to just take an existing macrophyte and give it some bulbs

The gourd could grow into a tree. It would be narrower than a terrestrial tree of similar heights, due to buoyancy. There is precedent for a gourd (or at least a related fruit) becoming a tree in the genus of Dendrosicyos. An interesting idea could be for the gourds to be neutrally buoyant, and grow floating amongst the high branches at ridiculous sizes

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  • $\begingroup$ FINALLY. Actual suggestions I'm looking for. Was that so hard everyone else? Got some decent answers here but you gave some good actual direction, thank you. $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2021 at 7:48
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The reason that seaweed is the only underwater plant we cultivate is because we call any underwater plant seaweed. That would be like saying that out of the water humans only cultivate plants that grow on land.

There are many varieties of seaweed that humans currently cultivate a simple search should avail you to plenty of regional variations. You can use this as a jumping up point to make up any fantastic aquaculture your heart desires.

There are also plenty of not-plants-but-plantlike animals that could be cultivated. Think exotic corals, anemones, sponges, etc. Those are plantlike enough for a fantasy setting. Unless your story revolves around counting calories and whether something is strictly a plant or not that's close enough for most readers.

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  • $\begingroup$ I did such searching, and found that, other than saying something like that the merfolk made a cultivar of seaweed that amounts to lettuce, it doesn't really suit my purposes. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2021 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ My recommendation is don't try to explain anything. Make up whatever sounds cool and trust yourself to build a captivating enough story that people won't get distracted and start winging about what is and isn't plausible. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Sep 21, 2021 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ well.... I asked the question because I wanted some ideas on how I could give it more aquatic features. I want to know how my plants would be altered by the underwater environment, how they would grow, etc. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2021 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ There's a reason that aquatic plants are different from terrestrial plants. In short the adaptations are be seaweed. If that doesn't work for you you're in make-up-something-that-sounds-cool territory. Go forth and be creative. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Sep 21, 2021 at 16:04
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    $\begingroup$ Upvotes for the plantlike animals to be cultivated! We don't have any of those on land but there are loads in the sea. Tunicates, corals, sponges, sea fans, sea pends, bryozoans, anemones. Tube worms! And on his farm he had a GIANT CLAM! Ee-yi-ee-yi-yo. With a ... here and a ... there. Yes. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Sep 21, 2021 at 21:18
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My problem with this is that it feels like my plants are not native to the ocean, but only transplanted from land.

Part of the problem here is that things that grow in the sea don't have to put up with nearly the same amount of inconvenience that things that grow on the land, do. The forebears of ancient terrestrial plants basically had to terraform the surface world, overcoming a whole bunch of problems that just aren't there for photosynthesizers that stay in the sea.

I won't elaborate on this here, but you don't really get stuff like roots, or fruit in purely aquatic plants and algae. This basically leaves you with few options, if you want to take your examples from real life.

Firstly, you have things where you eat the leaves (or fronds, when talking about algae rather than plants) or stems... obviously this has classic bits of human seaweed farming of stuff like kelp. Remember that algaculture is more than just the stuff that sushi nori gets wrapped in... there's scope for producing oils too, for eating or maybe fuel if your merpeeps spend much time on the surface and felt the urge to burn stuff. There are obviously lots of kinds of shapes and textures and flavour here, but they're mostly going to be "leafy-looking stuff" and "slimy stuff".

Secondly, you can, in fact, farm cereals. Seagrasses are one of many species that returned to the ocean having decided that the surface world wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and represent the only flowering sea plants. They're also actual plants as well, not algae. Tape seagrass seeds are edible, and can be cooked, though I'm not sure if it is possible to make flour from them (or if you'd want to). The grasses themselves can be used to produce fibres for making ropes and nets and maybe even clothing if you were in to that sort of thing. Seagrass meadows are also favoured habitats of Sirenia (mantees and their relatives) which might also be farmed for a change of flavour from fish, if your merpeeps were meat eaters. Clearly there's scope for farming both seeds and meat here. This might feel a bit too "transplanted from land" for your liking, but that's because these things are. Real life is not always exotic. Seagrass meadows can at least be made to feel quite different from grasses on land, with a bit of thought.

Thirdly you can harvest stuff that kinda just falls in the water. This seems a bit lazy, and isn't really farming, but more sort of lazy foraging. Coconuts are the most obvious thing here, and maybe they could be sorta farmed on coastlines, with a bit of effort, but it probably isn't worth it.

Relatedly though, you might consider things that are technically surface plants but are happy to grow in tidal water... mangroves. They form sometimes quite large coastal swamps which have all sorts of interesting and occasionally edible wildlife in them. Some species of mangrove have edible leaves and fruits... I've just discovered the mangrove apple but I don't doubt there are others. Mangroves drop their fruit into the sea, and may be planted in the sea, and so lend themselves to cultivation by beings who don't want to spend much, if any, time on the surface, but are prepared to tolerate shallow water.

Again, this might feel a bit too "transplanted from the surface" because they are surface plants, really, but that's the tedium of real life for you. This is your only way of getting fruits, I believe, as I'm not aware of any sea plants that produce fruits or fruit-like things. I may just be ignorant of them. You might make them up if you like, but there's no precedent for them, so it would depend on how tethered to reality you felt you needed to be.

Personally, I rather like the idea of merfolk cultivating surface plants in coastal areas, as a sort of mirror of surface folk cultivating seaweeds, but maybe its not your style.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. I've come to the conclusion sadly, that there's not much I can do if I want to be growing cultivated plants on the seafloor, but your input was helpful for other reasons, so thanks. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2021 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ Aquatic plants seem to be just as complex as their terrestrial relatives, so I don't see how this answer works $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2021 at 18:31
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If you really don't want these vegetables to seem terrestrial, then making them pleustonic seems like a sure-fire solution. I don't see how this could work with asparagus, but the other two should work

The starch-bulb seems like it needs to be a plant. One idea could be to make it like a lily pad, with floating leaves and the stem underneath. The roots could also trail through the water filtering out plankton. This seems like a plausible setup for a floating plant

The gourd-likes can be even stranger. As an example, they could be like one of the navally named finned siphonophores, with an algal symbiont of a unique colouration. With the photosynthesis and some filtered out matter they could easily grow an armour-coated buildup of fat, which your merfolk could easily breed into bigger shapes

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  • $\begingroup$ I am going to have to remember this for when I go into stuff with more coastal or island merfolk, as these are very interesting ideas. Thank you for your input. $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2021 at 7:50

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