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So, a setting I'm brainstorming is basically a tribal world, with Hunter-gatherers, animism, and the like.

One of the features I want to add, to make it stand out from our own world is the existence of megaflora, like giant trees, or fruits the size of houses.

Like, instead of growing a bunch of normal sized crops, you can grow one or two mega crops to feed the whole tribe.

Also, this just came to me, but I could see religion playing a role where the tribe tries to please the spirits so that some plants will grow to giant size. If the spirits are angered, the plant doesn't grow or fails to reach that size.

I'm not familiar with the average size of IRL tribes, but the average size for a tribe in this setting is a couple thousand people. They are baseline humans. The plants can sustain them for the same amount of type that an entire harvest of normal crops can.

There is magic in the setting, but so far it's very barebones, so I need to figure out how much of an impact it has on megaflora, if any. The practitioners of magic are known as shamans, and they serve as mediums between the human world and the spiritual realm, and specialize in healing.

This led to me trying to think through the implications of such plants. Could plants that big sustain a village or tribe sized population?

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    $\begingroup$ As soon as you have "magic" as part of the conditions then the answer is always going to be "If you want it to work that way", unless you define the rules of your magic otherwise. Especially since the question lacks information that would be needed to answer it in a non-magic sense, eg: How large is a "tribe"? How long does one giant fruit have to sustain them for? Do the members of the tribe (human?) require a variety of types of food in their diet? (Obviously, if a variety is required then one plant, however large, will be insufficient.) $\endgroup$ Nov 26, 2023 at 6:26
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    $\begingroup$ There are a lot of ungrounded assumptions here. If megaflora exists, we may assume it can sustain their own weight, or it would not have evolved to those sizes. I wouldn't know how people would be floating all the time; can you expand on that? Similarly with the gases. Are you imagining photosynthesis would only work at the top of the flora, and the oxygen would float up from there? $\endgroup$
    – Joachim
    Nov 26, 2023 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ A tribal society would have tribes of a few hundred at most, not a few thousand. Consider Dunbar's Number: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Nov 26, 2023 at 11:39
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    $\begingroup$ Harvest and storage of food would seem to be a more advanced culture than the hunter-gatherer, seems edging towards agriculture. $\endgroup$ Nov 27, 2023 at 5:07
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    $\begingroup$ A few thousand is not a tribe. It's a tribal federation. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Nov 27, 2023 at 9:06

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Your biggest problem is not nutritional value. It's that with big food items you need to eat them over time and it's hard to keep them edible.

I have a very large species of breadfruit, and my locale has some huge bananas (forearm width and length). Even with my six kids we can only just manage to eat one breadfruit at a sitting, and with the bananas there is no way we could manage a bunch (you don't just pull off one banana). So scale that up several times and you have a lot of rotten food messing up your area which is inefficient use of resources at best.

It could be done of course, but the food processing would be pretty intensive and time consuming. Everything from transporting the food to processing it for cooking and disposing of waste products would be a group effort.

We could roll a mango to feed ten people with, but what do we do with the stone the size of a beach ball? Or 20 apple seeds the size of my head?

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    $\begingroup$ what if they don't 'pick' the fruit? If they eat off of the growing fruit and let it grow back but never picking and killing the original fruit? Wouldn't work in the real world, but with magic supporting it's growth who knows.... $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Nov 26, 2023 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen Stuff like that would work for vegetables - cabbage (whatever kind), celery, asparagus, rhubarb if you want something sweet $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Nov 26, 2023 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ It would be a big mission just reaching the fruit. But with bananas for example you can't just pick one banana, when they're ripe you cut the tree down and if you don't eat the lot it will rot. But with some things it would be ok, you can nibble it away like a bunch of human caterpillars. $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Nov 26, 2023 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ Would that impact on family size then? instead of going out hunting/foraging for enough for your family, several members would go off to gather one giant breadfruit to feed the whole village at a time? effectively requiring "families" to be 30+ people. $\endgroup$ Nov 27, 2023 at 4:36
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    $\begingroup$ @dsollen That is essentially what most small animals in the real world are doing with large fruit. An extreme example is a worm in an apple, birds picking at cherries or plums is similar. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Nov 27, 2023 at 8:46
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In a certain way, we've done this with some plants in the real world.

Go into Google and look for images of "Alaska Pumpkin". Those can grow to weight up to a ton, sometimes more. And I believe they are just as tasty as regular ones.

Going a stretch further, bananas. Yes, bananas. No, you won't see a giant phallic fruit anytime soon, but we've inbred wild bananas so much to make the modern varieties that the plant no longer breeds through fruits. In any banana field that is allowed to propagate by itself, each trees produces new trees as ofshoots of itself that stay connected - basically a whole forrest may be a single individual. The fruits will still be regular-banana sized.

And finally there are cashews, baobabs, and sequoia.

Alright, the latter is not known for being edible, but imagine your people learn to extract syrup from sequoia sap.

Baobabs aren't as tall as sequoia but they can be so wide that some dude in Africa carved a bar inside one. They only give fruit very rarely and it's not edible, but you can imagine a world where they would give apples or something.

And as for cashews, the nut itself may be tiny, but the tree is mighty. Here is a picture of the largest one in the world:

The Pirangi Cashew Tree

You may be wondering where in the picture the tree is, and you may probably think it's within that city-block sized park by the middle of the photo. That whole park is the tree. And no, that's not a tree that cloned itself through offshoots like bananas do. That whole thing has a single trunk. It's just that when the branches become so heavy that they touch the ground, they make a pseudo-root and then continue growing up.

Regular cashews are not that big... Some people reckon the big one in the photo occupies the area of 70 regular sized cashew trees. But I can tell you even one alone is gigantic. I married under a rather big one (and rather taller than the norm), and it basically shaded the 2-story house which had the lawn it was on, as well as a neighbouring house.

And cashew trees are fruitful. You can harvest up to 9 tons/ha yearly (not just the nuts... the accessory fruit where nuts hang from is edible too, and it's delicious and sweet). Compare with 4.1 tons of corn or 2.3 tons of wheat for the same area, and you see that by square footage cashews will make your population diabetic much faster.

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Normal flora was already, in many historical cases, sustaining whole communities: potatoes and cereals are the most notable examples.

It's not far fetched to imagine that, instead of growing hundreds of let's say potato plants, a village could survive by growing a single, giant plant producing the equivalent harvest of those plants, either wit a single, enormous produce, or with several, smaller ones.

However don't forget that this creates an additional risk: growing a single plant makes the consequences of a failure in the growth way worse than growing several smaller plants.

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There are numerous science fiction instances where a megaflora provides an entire ecology for a society. Kevin Anderson's Saga of the Seven Suns has the Therons. The Integral Trees is an archetypical example. If science fiction can do it, it wouldn't take much magic.

I think you underestimate the amount of plant matter that a mega-flora could provide. The largest plant on Earth -- the largest creature on Earth -- is 200 square kilometers of seagrass (yes, one single plant). If you want a tree, we could talk about the Pando quaking aspen, which is 106 acres of just one tree.

If you're looking for a mono-trunk, as with the giant sequoia, then you might want to consider that trees are very much like coral in that they are a relatively thin layer of biologically active tissue, in this case growing on the lignin scaffolding left from previous cell divisions. You could build a mountain that way.

In reality, the Acacia tree provides a fascinating example of mutual specialization. The plant feeds and houses ants (pseudomyrmex ferruginea) in return for the defense the ants provide.

The real question you'd have to answer would be whether that one plant type was nutritionally complete. It wouldn't be impossible, but it would create people who are symbiotic (or parasitic) to the plant, and probably fully dependent upon it.

For humans, it would be more likely that we would also eat the creatures that find their homes in the megaflora.

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Yes... and No

  • If you can't eat it fast enough, the plant rots — and rotting plants bring stink and insect infestations.

  • Some plants can be dried for long-term storage, some can't.

  • The practical difference between one mega-plant and the bushels of "normal" sized plants is that it's easy to pick up a single "normal" sized planet and much harder to do so with the mega-version. In other words, the megafauna are more difficult to manipulate.

  • If you have an orchard or a field and a few trees or plants die from something like fire blight, you have the rest of the crop to work with. If that happens to the one or two megafauna plants your tribe is relying on, they're all dead of starvation. One big object is rarely better than many small objects.

  • I'm assuming we're not talking about a single, giant grain of wheat, but either large leafy plants (most believable) or large fruit (less believable). Fruit has a lot of water in it, and where there's water, rot comes more quickly and drying is more difficult. As I ramble through this answer, the water content of the foodstuff is one of the more important aspects of your worldbuilding. The higher the water content, the less believable the solution.

However...

We're assuming from your use of the word "crops" and the tribal size of several thousand that your tribe is stationary. Maybe that's where you need to make some adjustments. It would be trivial to rationalize feeding an entire nomadic tribe off of megafauna. That's little different than the American Natives harvesting buffalo, one or two of which could feed an entire family for a year. Less so a stationary community that depends more on predictability and the ability to stockpile.

It also depends on what you mean by "megafauna." If what you mean is strawberries the size of my fist, then this is really a non-issue as there would be little practical impact on the nature of harvest and storage (might not be enough chocolate, though...). However, if we're talking about strawberries the size of a house, then everything I've pointed out comes into play in spades.

Therefore, I see that your worldbuilding has two dials to play with: produce size and water content. As either increases, the believability of the solution decreases.

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It's a long time since I read The Future Eaters, but, as I recall, people learn about the environment by screwing up: more importantly, they realize they screwed up, and put measures in place to stop things getting worse. The ancestors of the Aborigines made it to Australia, ate the megafauna, then realized that they had brought about a food crisis. Tim Flannery argued that many Aboriginal customs had the effect of preventing the extinction of the remaining food species (establishing effective refuges, for instance).

Can you build this idea into your story? Could your natives have realized earlier that they were heading for a catastrophe, and prevented it?

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At the most basic level, whether the megaflora can sustain the tribe depends entirely on whether the energy it converts into fruit, roots or otherwise edible parts is enough to sustain the tribe.

The energy a giant plant has available for that depends (if magic does not help) on how much sunlight it can take in.

You might be able to guess where this is going - yes, giant plants that cover three square kilometers (or whatever area) with their leaves will have the same amount of energy available as many small plants covering three square kilometers (or whatever area). They might require more of it for their non-edible parts, or maybe even less after the initial growing time, that is up to you. But at the core, if the area the plants cover is as large as the area of farmland you'd expect to need to feed your tribe with normal-sized plants, it can work.

Practical concerns exist, of course.

Others have brought up harvesting and processing of giant fruits (or mining them while they're still on the plant, hopefully without inviting too much rot).

Then there's the growing time - if your magic does not intervene, a huge plant will take a lot longer to grow than many small ones. And the same is true for fruit - it will be hard to deposit all the sugar and water and whatnot for a three-story pear in place during a single summer. So the tribe might be watching a megapear grow for several years, looking forward to when the shaman finally says "yes, it is ripe. Let us begin the harvest." The growing fruit might have to be defended from (normal or huge) pests, mold, other fungus, hail, frost... this can shape the culture of your tribe a lot.

And let's hope there either is no megafauna or the tribe knows how to hide the fruits they're protecting from them. That might be a whole other story hook!

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  • $\begingroup$ Does it occur in nature, that a fruit needs more summers to grow and ripe? Maybe the environment OP has in mind needs to be tropical? $\endgroup$
    – Ivana
    Nov 29, 2023 at 10:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Ivana most normal-sized fruit grows in (less than) one year, but with some googling I found that juniper fruit ripens over 2-3 years - so there's at least one precedent. And giant fruit could be more easily hardened against winters - my first thought is "peach fuzz, but thicker" but even just a thick enough skin might do depending on how long and how cold a winter we're talking. $\endgroup$
    – Syndic
    Nov 29, 2023 at 13:31

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