Welcome back to Roshar! I hope you enjoyed Part 2 of Deana’s incredible overview of Rosharan cuisine complete with recipes you can make at home. This week we’ll be looking at the flora and fauna that make Roshar unique. Buckle up for our trip through the ecology of the strange and fascinating world of Roshar.
Warning: This series will contain spoilers for all of The Stormlight Archive published so far, and will occasionally draw on Words of Brandon for supporting information. I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers for other series, or to mark them if they really need to be included. I make no promises about the comment section; however, I’d request that if you want to include spoilers in a comment, please try to white-out the relevant text or at least clearly tag all spoilers so people can skip your comment.
Please note that, although the Rhythm of War early release of Part One has begun, we are NOT including anything from RoW in this series. If you’re following that and want to reference it in your comments, please tag it as a spoiler and, if possible, white-text it.
Megan: Before we dig in, Kellyn would you like to introduce yourself?
Kellyn: Absolutely, Megan. I am a Sanderson beta reader and Elsecaller Radiant. I’m a professional copyeditor for a university press, mainly editing biographies and research texts about the ecology and history of the western United States. I’m also a huge animal lover, which is why I volunteered to discuss my favorite part of The Stormlight Archive, the plants and animals on Roshar. Let’s get into it!
The ecology of Roshar is pretty unique. Most of the continent is very rocky, but this doesn’t make it barren—it’s teeming with life unlike anything we have here on earth. Sanderson recently described some of his inspirations:
The highstorms came from tidal pools. A lot of the ecology on Roshar was, “Can I create something that looks like a tidal pool or a reef that’s, like, a break for the waves, where things are crashing into it a lot.” Just kind of building this idea around that.
So much of the flora and fauna we see on Roshar resembles what you might see in a reef: crustaceans, sea anemones that retract, barnacles, seaweed, coral, etc.
Brandon has also stated that the many slot canyons of Southern Utah were his inspiration for the Shattered Plains. These chasms feature a mixture of red and brown rock that often experience dangerous flash floods, much like highstorms fill in the cracks between plateaus on Roshar. However, while Brandon took inspiration from many plants and animals on Earth and changed them to fit a very different ecosystem, some species on Roshar are directly related to Earth-type flora and fauna, with no—or very few—adaptations. To explain this discrepancy, a bit of history is necessary.
Roshar predates the Shattering of Adolalsium, as do the highstorms. During this period, both the flora and the fauna developed ways to protect themselves. For example, grass retracts into the earth, trees lie flat, and most of the native fauna have hard exoskeletons to protect them from highstorms. Once the humans arrived, however, Roshar was significantly changed. We know the humans came from the planet Ashyn, bringing with them plants and animals that are comparable to our Earth. Shinovar is where the humans originally settled, and is protected from highstorms by the Misted Mountains to the east. The ecology is more similar to Earth and still contains the Shin people, known for their large eyes as well as their many Earth-like exports. For example, grass from Shinovar grows in soil and does not retract, evidenced by Rysn’s first interlude in The Way of Kings, and trees do not retract their leaves or lie down. Other known Earth-like creatures include chickens (though they refer to ALL birds as chickens) and horses, which have been exported throughout the rest of Roshar but are considered extremely valuable and expensive. Their farmed exports include grapes, wheat, and strawberries (used in Shallan’s favorite jam). Outside of Shinovar, however, the ecology is vastly different. Let’s start with the flora common to the rest of Roshar.
Native Rosharan Flora
The first mention we get of flora in The Way of Kings is of grass that retracts directly into the stone ground:
The wagons continued to roll, fields of green extending in all directions. The area around the rattling wagons was bare, however. When they approached, the grass pulled away, each individual stalk withdrawing into a pinprick hole in the stone. After the wagons moved on, the grass timidly poked back out and stretched its blades toward the air.
Disappearing grass? Intriguing! We soon get other observations from Shallan, whose Calling is, after all, natural history.
She sketches various types of rockbuds, which seem to be one of the most common types of flora on Roshar. While many plants are called “rockbuds,” true rockbuds (sometimes called common rockbuds) are a specific plant with a hard shell. These shells are open most of the time but close in response to external stimuli that might mean a highstorm is coming. Interestingly, these plants don’t appear to have roots but instead simply rest upright on the rocky ground. The rockbud interior can be used for food or medicine, and the shells can be used to contain water or even make paper or textiles.
M: I love Shallan’s drawings of Rosharan ecology and am so glad that these were included in the books. They really make the world of Roshar come to life.
K: Definitely! The in-world art is one of my favorite parts of the books, and the reason I must have the physical versions in addition to the e-books and audio.
Other flora that are colloquially called rockbuds include vinebuds, prickletacs, and lavis polyps. As you can see from Shallan’s drawing, these are each different but share the ability to retract or shelter themselves against highstorms. Vinebuds pull into their flexible stem and are rooted to the ground, unlike common rockbuds. Prickletac shrubs are different from other rockbud types because they are actually a colony of small plants. Only the tips of the prickletac are alive and grow on top of the shells of their dead forbears. When a branch falls off, the fallen live buds form new plants. Prickletacs were inspired by branch coral.
Lavis polyps are a super important type of rockbud. They grow a cereal grain inside them called lavis, which is a common source of nutrition on Roshar. Lavis polyps grow rooted to the ground and mature ones contain a grain akin to corn mixed in with something like sand. Kaladin mentions that lavis polyps must be dewormed using sticks with sugar on them that the worms are attracted to. There are a few other types of grains grown on Roshar: tallew (rice), clema, treb, and Shin wheat. According to Edgedancer, Treb is planted in rifts in the ground and grows vines from its pods to keep itself in place. While treb is relatively low maintenance, it also appears to be a low quality grain. We don’t know much about what plants grow tallew or clema, though Shin wheat is assumed to be similar to Earth wheat. Beyond plants that grow grains, some must grow fruits and vegetables as a variety of these are mentioned throughout the series. For more on edible flora and earth analogues, see Deana’s food posts.
Shallan has more drawings for us of another type of plant: a frillbloom. These have fanlike fronds that curl up like a fist when touched. Frillblooms, like many of the plants mentioned, grow differently depending on the region. The frillblooms in the chasms are larger than average, and the vinebuds in the chasms are huge and have large flowers. In contrast, the rockbuds on the Shattered Plains are much smaller than in Alethkar where they can grow to the size of a barrel. In the cold of Urithiru, the farmers haven’t been able to get lavis to grow at all.
M: However, there is a way to make plants grow even where conditions aren’t hospitable. We learn from one of Eshonai’s chapters that the listeners use Stormlight and rhythms to make plants grow!
Shallan’s sketchbook contains a few plants that seem akin to Earth trees. First is the scalespray, which sort of resembles a short palm tree with a scaled trunk, fronds on top, and fruit growing in a cluster atop the fronds. The scalespray can retract these fronds into its scaled trunk, shortening it so the fruit is easily harvestable.
The stumpweight tree is about six feet tall and has no branches, just one large trunk in the middle. Its leaves grow from this trunk and wrap around it when a highstorm approaches. Since they are always exposed to the storms, stumpweights only grow leaves on the leeward side. Stumpweight trees have a variety of uses. Their large trunk is a common source of wood for furniture and other household products and their sap is mixed with lavis seeds and spread across the rocky ground to seed new lavis polyps.
The markel tree is the largest of the three. It reaches approximately sixteen feet in height with stone-coated bark and branches as thick as a man’s leg. Snarlbrush plants grow underneath markel trees and are particularly interesting because they change color.
He poured some water on his hand from his own canteen and flung it at the brown snarlbrush. Wherever sprayed droplets fell, the brush grew instantly green, as if he were throwing paint. The brush wasn’t dead; it just dried out, waiting for the storms to come. Kal watched the patches of green slowly fade back to tan as the water was absorbed.
Shallan’s drawings of stumpweight and markel trees seem especially similar to shapes from our own Earth oceans. They are! The stumpweight’s leaves were inspired by seaweed and the markel’s leaves by clam shells.
That covers most of what we know about Rosharan flora. As Shallan mentions in The Way of Kings, Rosharan scholars seem more focused on greatshells than on common flora or fauna. That has left a lot of Roshar’s ecosystem yet to be explained. For example, Shallan doesn’t know many of the types of plants in the laits on the Shattered Plains despite botany being part of her Calling.
K: I can’t exactly blame Roshar’s scholars for this, since animals are my favorite part. Is it time for the fauna yet?
M: Yes! Roshar’s animal life is even more inexplicable. Let’s get to it.
Native Rosharan Fauna
There are a number of Rosharan fauna that appear to have a symbiotic relationship with other Rosharan animals, spren, or even both. First up is shalebark. Sanderson has said that shalebark is actually a type of fauna, which is incredible because Shallan and everyone else seems to think of it like a plant and use it ornamentally in gardens.
M: Kellyn, got any ideas on what kind of fauna it could be?
K: I’m guessing it’s similar to coral or anemones, though it lives outside of water. Shalebark likely has a symbiotic relationship with other animal life, much like anemones and clownfish need each other to survive. I’m curious what kind of animal shalebark would partner with though. It seems to be some type of cremling?
Shallan describes shalebark in Kharbranth:
She’d asked a groundskeeper the name of the most prominent shalebark plant; he’d called it “plated stone.” A fitting name, as it grew in thin round sections that piled atop one another, like plates in a cupboard. From the sides, it looked like weathered rock that exposed hundreds of thin strata. Tiny little tendrils grew up out of pores, waving in the wind. The stonelike casings had a bluish shade, but the tendrils were yellowish.
Shallan also remarks on the relationship between the shalebark and some smaller fauna that live on it. She doesn’t seem to know the term “symbiosis,” which reinforces our hypothesis that Rosharan biological scholarship isn’t very well developed:
She used a finer-tipped charcoal pencil to scribble some thoughts about the relationship between the animals and the plants. She didn’t know of any books that spoke of relationships like this one.
But what are these symbiotic fauna? Well one is a snail whose shell is colored to match the shalebark and appears to eat what Shallan thinks are lichen and mold off the branches. The other are cremlings, though this term refers to a variety of small insect-like fauna. Primarily considered pests, these clawed creatures can be found all over Roshar, feeding off dead carcasses or plants, and are often used in Rosharan cuisine.
One mysterious type of cremling has a very different kind of symbiotic relationship, in this case with the Sleepless. These cremlings mass into a humanoid shape and take on a hive mind, allowing the Sleepless to walk and spy among the humans.
M: Don’t recall the Sleepless? Also called Dysian Aimians, we’ve met them twice: Lift meets Arclo in Edgedancer and Kaza meets the cook in her interlude. They call their thousands of cremlings “hordelings” and breed them for specific uses, for example, appearing like human skin. I shiver at the thought!
K: Yes. Very few things would creep me out more than knowing I could be talking to someone who is composed of thousands of tiny insects!
Some Rosharan animals—such as santhids, chasmfiends, the greatshells of the Reshi Isles, and skyeels—seem to have an even closer type of symbiotic relationship, this time with spren.
In addition to fish and other ocean life that follow the santhid and eat off its large turtle-like shell, an unknown spren accompanies this elusive animal. Their rare sightings are thought to bring good luck (perhaps this mysterious spren has something to do with it?), and Shallan is anxious to re-draw the one following the Wind’s Pleasure after she lost her original sketch when the ship sank. She believes the santhid saved her life during the sinking, and this combined with the understanding she observed in its eye when she swam next to it a few days prior suggests the creature has far greater intelligence than many other Rosharan fauna.
It’s also possible that the spren accompanying the santhid may help the large beast swim in the water, like the spren that assist skyeels in their flight. Skyeels are one of the only native creatures on Roshar that do not have some kind of hard shell or exoskeleton, and are described perfectly by their name, eels that fly in the sky. The santhid may bring good luck, but according to Shallan’s sketchbook sailors refer to the skyeels’ symbiotic spren as “luckspren.” (Though Shallan does not agree with this at first, she later sees mandras in Shadesmar and theorizes these are the luckspren that assist both skyeels and greatshells). Skyeels use the digestive gasses from ingesting their prey to fill a pouch underneath their side fins in order to ascend in the sky, releasing that same gas to descend and capture another meal. They are primarily located in coastal regions, and Shallan first observes them when she arrives in Kharbranth in The Way of Kings.
K: Santhids and skyeels are such fascinating creatures. I love the idea of a giant turtle crossed with a jellyfish keeping me company while I sail the seas.
M: Skyeels are so cool! I’d love to see one in flight. I wonder how much they use fluid dynamics to fly versus the lighter-than-air gas and maybe an assist from the spren?
In addition to the sea and sky fauna on Roshar, the greatshells have a symbiotic relationship with spren but live on land—or, in the case of the ones native to the Reshi Isles, are a type of land themselves. Rather than helping them fly or swim, these spren, called mandras (again, theorized to be luckspren), bond with a greatshell’s emerald gemheart and decrease its mass, preventing it from being crushed by its own weight. The Tai-na of the Reshi Isles are the size of islands, but are still able to move around due to this spren bond, if slowly.
The terrifying chasmfiends of the Shattered Plains are smaller than the Tai-na, yet are still extremely formidable opponents and possess the spren bond that allows their larger size. Hunted specifically for their enormous gemhearts, chasmfiends possess an exoskeleton formed of hard interlocking carapace and eighteen legs that allow them to move much faster than other greatshells. They emerge from the canyons of the Shattered Plains to pupate, forming a hard chrysalis around themselves (like many other Rosharan creatures) to await a highstorm, though they often don’t survive long enough to complete the process. As Shallan discovers from her observations in Words of Radiance, the competition over the chasmfiends has led to extensive over-hunting, and these predators are now in danger of facing the same fate of the extinct lanceryns, a greatshell once native to Aimia.
M: I wonder what the chasmfiend transforms into if allowed to finish its pupation. I’m excited and terrified by the idea! I hope we find out soon. Anyone got theories?
K: Definitely. I was so saddened by Shallan’s suggestion that they might be endangered in Words of Radiance. They may be frightening creatures, but I want to see them finish their life cycle.
Though possibly related to the enormous greatshells of Roshar, smaller shelled creatures such as larkins and chulls do not seem to have a symbiotic relationship with either spren or other fauna. Chulls look like giant hermit crabs, but actually serve a function closer to our domesticated oxen on Earth. Though quite strong, chulls are generally slow and docile and are mainly used to pull wagons—or bridges, in Dalinar’s case). Larkin, on the other hand, are a bit more like a flying cremling originating from Aimia. They are extremely rare, and are unique in their ability to feed on Stormlight, growing larger the more they consume. Rysn receives a larkin as a gift while in the Reshi Isles, and Chiri-Chiri becomes very important during her interlude in Oathbringer.
While much of Rosharan fauna seems to be inspired by clams, lobsters, and other shelled creatures here on Earth (though with a greater range of sizes), Roshar is also home to animals that—while still often possessing a protective exoskeleton—are reminiscent of more intelligent Earth life. For example, axehounds and whitespines certainly aren’t soft and cuddly, but they are more akin to Earth-type pets and predators with an insect-like twist. Axehounds are domesticated pets similar to dogs (though wild axehounds still exist), but instead of ears and a fluffy tail they have antennae, violet blood, and a tail more like the fin of a fish.
Whitespines, on the other hand, certainly aren’t kept as pets, but the one Shallan sketches in captivity at the warcamps on the Shattered Plains portrays a beastly predator reminiscent of a dinosaur crossed with a praying mantis. Hunting whitespines for sport is common among the Alethi lighteyes, but their tusks are quite deadly, as evidenced by the death of Roshone’s son in Hearthstone after such a hunt.
M: Whitespines have been described as “landsharks with spikes,” which is a terrifying thought! A giant crustacean-like chasmfiend is one thing, but a quick-moving land shark? I like my sharks safely in the ocean, thank you very much.
K: Maybe that’s why I think whitespines are so cool! Sharks are one of my favorite animals.
Roshar also hosts many other small animals like haspers, lurgs, and graspers, but they do not play a significant role in the series as of yet, and we are already impressed that you all have made it this far! Let’s wrap this up.
The Strange and Fascinating Exception: Ryshadium
Other than humans, Ryshadium appear to be the only non-native species to have significantly evolved (most likely from their spren bond) since their arrival on Roshar. Genetically distinct from regular horses yet still able to breed with them, Ryshadium are much larger, faster, and stronger than their Earth-like counterparts, with increased endurance and stone hooves that never need shoeing. They are able to carry a full Shardbearer, but it is their increased intelligence that makes them stand out in such a unique world of fauna. Ryshadium seem to have a level of sentience far beyond other Rosharan animals, and certainly have not been domesticated. They choose their riders, respond nonverbally and even sometimes verbally (though not with words), and are incredibly loyal. With seven books left to go in the series, there are still many secrets yet to be discovered about this mysterious species.
K: As an equestrian, Ryshadium are easily my favorite. I’m constantly wanting more information from Brandon about these fascinating creatures.
M: Me too! I’d really love some official art of the Ryshadium.
That’s it! I hope you enjoyed touring the strange and wonderful plants and animals of Roshar with us. Next week will be a look at the people and places highlighted in the Stormlight Archive—join us then!
When Kellyn’s not beta-reading behemoths like Rhythm of War or editing non-fiction texts about the western United States, she spends her time with her husband, daughter, and pets near Salt Lake City, Utah.
Megan is a Sanderson Beta-Reader and longtime fan. She lives and works in Washington, D.C.