There are 120 species of the genus Anemone distributed throughout the temperate regions of the northern and southern hemisphere. The flowers are simple radially symmetrical blooms, the kind a child draws when asked to draw a flower. Their genus name is also their common name and it is derived from the Greek word for wind, anemos, with a feminine ending, –one, and they are also sometimes called “windflowers,” although I can find no interesting reason why.
According to Greek myth (as retold in greater detail by Ovid in his Metamorphoses), when Adonis was killed by a wild boar a distraught Aphrodite sprinkled is blood with nectar and when the drops fell to the ground anemones sprang up. In addition to this well known central story, Adonis was (by various names) a god of death and rebirth in several eastern Mediterranean cultures.
This is one of those fascinating examples of the oblique connections that are retained as stories evolve through time. In the later Adonis story wherein he is Aphrodite’s lover, he also must spend part of each year with Persephone in the underworld. The preserves his older association with death and rebirth, as does the detail that anemones, a perennial plant, spring up from his blood after he dies.
According to some sources anemones flower relatively briefly and the association with the wind comes from the purported “fact” that their petals are blown aways quite soon after they’ve opened. This may be true of the eastern Mediterranean taxa that grow where the plant was given the name that we use, but it was never my impression of the Japanese anemones (A. hupehensis) that bloom in late summer in flower beds everywhere. It is native to China, but has been naturalized in Japan (var. japonica) for centuries. This species and its various cultivars are actually praised for having long-lasting flowers.
The Greeks were perhaps referring to A. nemorosa, the European wood anemone, or something like it (A. blanda, the Greek anemone?). This is a woodland plant that flowers in the early spring. In more northern areas dominated by deciduous forest, the wood anemone needs to go through its life cycle for the leaves close off the sunlight to the forest floor. It springs up, flowers, and dies back to its rhizomes in a matter of weeks. However, this is fairly typical of woodland wildflowers, so it is still suspect that the wind blowing the petals off should be the source of its name.
Speaking of petals, strictly speaking they are not petals, but tepals. Tepals refer to flower organs that have not differentiated into a group of petals (corolla) and a group of sepals (calyx). In more complex flowers, when you look at a bud you are seeing the outer ring of sepals closed around the rest of the flower. When it opens the petals are revealed and the sepals may nearly disappear under them. In simpler flowers when they are in bud you are just seeing the underside of the tepals (collectively called the perianth) until it opens to reveal the – sometimes more brightly colored – upper side.
The tepals of Japanese anemones stay on the plant long enough that they are considered quite suitable as cut flowers. The cultivars can vary in color from snow-white to a deep shade of red and several different shades are often planted together in the same bed. And while the woodland anemones are usually quite short (under a foot tall), the Japanese anemones can be three or four feet tall and some varieties even reach five feet. So the combination of bright, mixed colors, dramatic height and a vase life of over a week makes them a striking addition to the indoors from August through September.