Classical Namesakes

A large number of flower names are derived from (mostly unfortunate) characters in classical mythology. The gods were forever taking lovers among the mortal population or merely befriending them and one way or another getting them killed. These hapless casualties were often turned into plants, usually very attractive ones.

Asclepius "butterfly weed"

Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a lake nymph called Coronis. Coronis cuckolded Apollo, never a good idea when dealing with a god, and he sent his sister Artemis, the huntress, to kill the pregnant nymph. He spared his unborn son, however, who was sent to Chiron the centaur to learn the craft of healing. Asclepius ultimately became a healer of some reknown. Like his headstrong mother he eventually overstepped his position as far as the Olympians were concerned and became so good at healing that he began raising people from the dead. Zeus disliked the idea of the gods losing their unique status as immortals and killed Asclepius.

Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th century inventor of the system of binomial nomenclature, by which all living things are identified and organized, named the milkweeds after Asclepius, because many of the species were associated with folk medicine. In particular, Asclepias tuberosa, the butterfly weed is also called “pleurisy root” because North American tribal people chewed the root as a treatment for pulmonary ailments.

Peony

The peony (Paeonia) is named after a student of Asclepius. The student angered Asclepius by seeking a plant with curative powers as strong as those of Asclepius. Filled with jealousy, Asclepius plotted to kill his young student. The god Zeus, in order to protect the young physician, transformed him into the flower that bears his name today.

Apollo also plays a part in the story of Daphne. She was a river nymph who was a follower of Artemis and, as part of her allegiance, swore herself to virginity. Apollo, of course, would have none of that and pursued Daphne relentlessly. In desperation she begged her father, a river god, to turn her into a laurel tree.

When Apollo was informed of Daphne’s transformation, he made a wreath of the laurel leaves and branches and began the tradition of awarding laurel wreaths for superlative accomplishments.

The European laurels (genus Daphne) associated with classical and neo-classical art (the Romans continued the association of laurels with winners) are not related to the North American laurels (mountain-laurel, sheep and bog laurels), which are ericads (family Ericaceae). The European plants are in the family Malvaceae and are more closely related to the North American basswood (Tilia americana).

Hyacinth

Endymion, the genus name for the wild hyacinth, is now retired; it has been replaced with Hyacinthoides. Endymion is variously identified as either a Peloponnesian king or a simple shepherd. In either case, he was an attractive mortal who became the lover of Selene, the moon goddess. As his youth began to wane, Selene could not stand the thought of her mortal lover aging and so put him into a deep sleep. Selene is able to visit him in his deep sleep.

The Greek lover may have become associated with his namesake by virtue of the fleeting nature of the hyacinth. It blooms for a short period and then the plant withers and disappears. The dormant bulb survives year after year, repeatedly producing its brief efflorescence before disappearing again. This pattern recalls Endymion in his eternal sleep, forever being briefly visited by his immortal consort.

Hyacinth and Apollo

The name Hyacinth is associated, like so many other flowers, with Apollo. The eponymous Greek was a close friend of the god and they often threw the discus together in friendly competition. One day Apollo’s throw went far beyond his intentions and split open Hyacinth’s forehead. As Apollo held his dying friend in his arms, flowers sprang up where the blood poured onto the grass.

The flower that is described in the story doesn’t, however, resemble the hyacinth that we now know, but was rather a dark purple flower that seems more similar to an iris. The cultivated hyacinth, derived from Hyacinthus orientalis, is in the same family as Hyacinthoides (formerly Endymion).

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