Sunday, 10 May 2015

Some Plant Myths

Some Plants Myths


Today I want explore at the mythic origin of plant names of some of the plants in my garden.
Some of this information I’ve found in Jennifer Gay’s book, Greece: garden of the gods.

(This is a book in which I've often found what I’ve been looking for even though I might get frustrated with the absence of an index!)


This plant is well known as the source of inspiration for the Greek sculptor Callimachus’ ornamental motif that decorates the tops of Corinthian pillars. There is an old myth told about this plant regarding the nymph Acantha who was desired by the God Apollo. In her attempt to escape his unwanted advances she scratched his face and in revenge he turned her into this spiky plant.


The name carnation my come for ‘Coronation’ as the flower was frequently used to make floral crowns. It is also known as kianthus, from the Greek words dios, divine, and anthos, a flower. The carnation is descended from the clover gillyflowers of England which from the earliest times was used to spice ales and was also credited with great curative powers.


‘Men by reason well it calle may/ The Daisie, or else the Eye of Day,/The Empress and the flower of flowers all.’

In the days of Chaucer the daisy was called the E’e of Daie (Eye of Day) and eventually ‘daisy’. The Welsh call the daisy the ‘Trembling Star’ in Scotland it is called the Gowan. In olden times the daisy was called the measure of love from the practice of maidens of reading their future fates from the flower by pulling off the petals and repeating the words, ‘He loves me, he loves me not.’

Daffodil, Narcissus

Narcissus was beloved by Echo. One day to quench his thirst he bent over a stream to drink and for the first time saw his own reflection. Echo tried to prevail on him to turn her way but he sat there gazing on his own loveliness until he died. The gods chanted him into the narcissus which bends its head as if seeking to see it reflection. The bulbs were used in ancient medicine and were supposed to induce sleep.


Greek athletes ate figs constantly for strength and fitness. Plato called figs the philosophers’ friend’s because they ‘strengthened intelligence’, which is probably the case as sugar does give the brain a boost. If you link this idea with the words of the Bible that when Adam and Eve chose to use fig leaves to cover themselves, because they found that after eating the apple ‘the eyes of both of them were opened...’ you might recommend that apples and figs should be included in the diet of all school children.


This plant, like the rose, had a name I could easily remember because it was so applicable, Ayioklima, meaning the ‘climbing saint’. There are about 180 species of Lonicera in the Northern Hemisphere. 


Basil is much used in church ceremonials in Greece. Bunches of basil are used by the priest to sprinkle holy water on the congregation. And it has a number of mythological stories that connect to this plant. One I was told by my Greek my sister-in-law that Basil was unlucky to have in your home. At least it is unlucky for your husband as ‘basil’ means ‘the lord’ and there should only be one lord of the household, thus to have a pot of it is a threat to your husband!


This is a Mediterranean plant growing in the woodlands and scrub. It has glossy, aromatic leaves. The Greek name, Daphni, comes from the story of a nymph pursued by Apollo who asked Gaia for help. The Earth Goddess then turned her into this shrub. The in remembrance the saddened Apollo picked some leaves and formed them into a crown, and ever after the Greek athletes would be adorned with a ceremonial crown of laurel leaves.


Aphrodite the goddess of Love and Beauty created the plant, which, knowing of all her infidelities it is strange that it became a symbol of remembrance and fidelity. However it also had a reputation for stimulating memory and energizing the mind.


The Greek myth of Iris may stem from the various colours of the flowers as Iris was not only a messenger of the gods but also the Goddess of the Rainbow.


The nasturtium is a very ancient flower. According to a legend a young Trojan warrior was changed into this flower and this may be the reason for its being the symbol of patriotism. It used to be known as Yellow Lark’s Heel or Indian Cress, and in olden times its seeds were considered a charm against serpents.  


Myths credit the Olive to Athena who was said to have placed the first tree on the Acropolis; however the olive tree’s very ancient origins can be noted from the fact of its presence in Minoan wall paintings in the palace of Knossos.


The pomegranate is not only mentioned in the Bible but also by Homer. In Greece it is often called Rodia, and thus it is a very important symbol on the island of Rhodes. In ancient Greece this tree stood for conjugal love and fertility and its fruit were sacred to the cult of Hera, the protector of marriage and birth. It was also important in the worship of Aphrodite and Athena. The pomegranate also the fruit that Persephone ate in Hades that then condemned her to remain there for half of every year. 


The goddess Demeter mourning for her daughter Persephone created the poppy so that she could eat its seeds and forget her grief. Down the ages it has been the symbol of sleep and consolation. In Flanders and in France, it sprang up on the battlefields and has become identified with the sacrifice of the soldiers of the Great War.


The Greek name for roses is triandafola. This was another easy name for me to remember and one of the first Greek words I learnt - thirty petalled. Roses are the sacred flower of Mary. Wild roses only have five petals and five petalled flowers are sacred in many different religions: perhaps because there are five books of the Jewish Torah and five pillars of faith in the Muslim religion. A Mandela also has five sections, like the wild rose.



I read that this tree produces a white sweet substance that the Bedouins eat. It may be one of the many foods they call manna after the story in the Bible where the children of Israel wandered in the desert and God provided them with food each morning.


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