THE MYTHS BEHIND PLANT NAMES

by Joelle Steele

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For many plant lovers the very idea of trying to remember all those complicated Latin names can be a real chore. But, many plant names have far less than scientific origins and knowing the story behind them just might help you remember them a little better. The ancient Greeks in particular had a rich mythology which is the basis for the botanical names of many common plants and flowers.

The cornflower or snowball gets its botanical name Centaurea cyanus, from two Greek myths. The first is from the centaur Chiron who was wounded by a poison arrow and used the cornflower blossom to heal his wound. The second name, Cyanus, was that of a mythical youth who so loved flowers that he spent all his time surrounded by them and died in a bed of cornflowers, his favorites. Flora, goddess of flowers, rewarded his love of her creations by turning him into a cornflower.

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Flora was not always so benevolent. Once, in a fit of jealousy, she changed the nymph Anemone, who was loved by Zephyr, god of the West Wind, into a flower, the anemone. Another myth says that anemones were formed from the tears of Venus, goddess of love and beauty, as she wept over the body of Adonis, god of nature. That myth also says that Venus caused a flower to spring from his blood, and we call it the Adonis or adonis flower.

Flowers springing forth from the blood of the dying or the tears of the crying, were common themes in Greek mythology. Another such saga tells of Hyacinthus, son of Amyclas, King of Sparta. Zephyr was angry and jealous of Hyacinthus and killed him. Where his blood dripped on the ground a flower sprung up which was called Hyacinthus. The aster is named for the star goddess Aster who looked down at the earth from her heavenly place and was saddened when she saw it had no stars of its own. She wept over the earth, and where her tears fell, the asters bloomed.

Gods and goddesses were the source of many a floral transformation. Paeon, physician to the gods and a student of Asclepius, god of medicine and healing, made his teacher angry. Asclepius threatened to kill Paeon. Leto, goddess of fertility, pleaded with the great god Zeus to spare Paeon from Asclepius' wrath and Zeus obliged by turning Paeon into a flower, the Paeonia or peony. Asclepius ended up lending his name to the milkweed genus, Asclepias.

The Greek gods also created the flower we know as Crocus, so named for the son of Europa. Crocus was in love with Smilax who spurned his affections. So, Crocus asked the gods to help him win her heart and they responded by turning him into a flower. It worked because Smilax then loved Crocus. But, Crocus eventually rejected her and the gods turned her into a yew. Today the sarsaparilla genus bears her name, Smilax.

Another Greek myth tells the story of Narkeo, the handsome son of Cephisus and Liriope. He caught sight of his likeness in a pool and fell in love with it. As he worshipped his image in the dark waters, he reached out to touch it and fell in, drowning in the process. All that remained of him was a white flower that floated on the water in his place. We know Narkeo today and the flower named after him, by his Latinized name, Narcissus. His mother is also remembered in the genus name Liriope.

Some plants got their names from gods and goddesses and from mythical people and places, but in a less dramatic way. The yarrow, Achillea, is named for Achilles, the hero of Homer's Trojan War epic, The Iliad. Achilles gave the plant to his soldiers to stop the bleeding from their wounds. The marigold, Tagetes, got its name from an Etruscan youth, Tages, who learned divination, was murdered, and then made into a god. The Iris is named for Iris, goddess of the rainbow which she used to transmit messages of love from heaven to earth. The name "iris" means "eye of heaven" and the plant is considered a symbol for communications of any kind.

Artemisia is named for Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt. It was once carried by travelers and hunters to ward off disease and wild animals. One of Artemisia's common names is St. John's Belt, and that name comes from the belief that the plant was carried by John the Baptist when he was in the wilderness. St. John's Wort is the common name for Hypericum. The common name arose because it was said that St. John blessed the plant with healing powers, and the botanical name is derived from the Greek Titan Hyperion, father of Helios the sun god and Selene the moon goddess.

The autumn crocus, Colchicum, was named for an ancient place on the Black Sea named Colchis. It was there that these flowers grew in abundance and where the mythical Medea used their roots to poison her enemies. One legend says that the flowers grew wherever she spilled a drop of her magic potion. Campanula, also known as "Venus' looking glass," gets its common name from a Greek myth in which Venus loses her magic mirror. She sends Cupid to retrieve it and he accidentally causes it to be shattered in the process. Wherever a piece of it landed, these flowers began to grow.

This article last updated: 01/14/2000.