The continuing discoveries of a 21st century artist and naturalist …
I often wonder how certain traditions were established and how names are assigned – particularly in nature. I’ve thought many times that somewhere along the way the colors red and purple changed meanings. For instance – we call the tree Cercis canadensis a Redbud even though their blooms are more purple in tone and hue. And we refer to Haemorhous purpureus as a Purple Finch when their coloring is decidedly more red than purple.
So while I was researching information on the wildflowers , shrubs and vines for this series I made periodic notes when I ran across one associated with mythology . Knowing their backgrounds may cause us to look on their loveliness with even greater appreciation.
There are hundreds of species in the Iris genus and, true to the origins of its name, there are as many colors of Irises as there are in the rainbow – perhaps more. Iris means rainbow in Greek. In Greek mythology the goddess Iris personified the rainbow and, as such, was the messenger of the gods. We get the term iridescence and the name for the multi-colored portion of the human eye from the Iris. The flower was perhaps first ‘discovered’ in Syria by the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III who had them included as some of the plants carved in the Temple of Karnak.
In addition to this Egyptian Pharoah the Iris is part of French royal history. The legend begins when a hermit is presented with a brilliant blue shield with gold Irises on it by an angel. The hermit takes the shield to Queen Clotilde who gives it to King Clovis. From the day he first used it in battle his armies triumphed over all enemies. Later in France’s history Louis VII adopted the Iris in his crusades of 1137 when they miraculously appeared on his white standards becoming known as the Flower of Louis. But the name probably originated from “flower de luce” or flower of light. A later French king, Charles V, reduced the number of Irises on the royal standards to only three to symbolize the Christian Trinity.
In The Language of Flowers the meaning of the Iris is ‘message’ and was the subject of one of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s poems.
Flower De Luce
Beautiful lily, dwelling by still rivers,
Or solitary mere,
Or where the sluggish meadow-brook delivers
Its waters to the weir!
Thou laughest at the mill, the whir and worry
Of spindle and of loom,
And the great wheel that toils amid the hurry
And rushing of the flame.
Born in the purple, born to joy and pleasance,
Thou dost not toil nor spin,
But makest glad and radiant with thy presence
The meadow and the lin.
The wind blows, and uplifts thy drooping banner,
And round thee throng and run
The rushes, the green yeomen of thy manor,
The outlaws of the sun.
The burnished dragon-fly is thine attendant,
And tilts against the field,
And down the listed sunbeam rides resplendent
With steel-blue mail and shield.
Thou art the Iris, fair among the fairest,
Who, armed with golden rod
And winged with the celestial azure, bearest
The message of some God.
Thou art the Muse, who far from crowded cities
Hauntest the sylvan streams,
Playing on pipes of reed the artless ditties
That come to us as dreams.
O flower-de-luce, bloom on, and let the river
Linger to kiss thy feet!
O flower of song, bloom on, and make forever
The world more fair and sweet
One final note: Orris Root – the basis of many perfumes, the fixative in potpourri, and an ingredient in many gins – is made from a certain species of dried and ground Iris bulbs.
This is one of my favorite flowers. Something about the simplicity of design and abundance of their blooms in the spring has always attracted me to them. I’ve practiced many times, as a young girl, the traditional “He loves me – He Love Me Not”. Doing so while plucking out petals supposedly determines if the object of your affection loves you as well. (Of course I never thought about it from the flowers’ point of view until I heard Mitch Hedberg’s bit about it.)** Strong language warning for this link**
That tradition started in Germany and earned it one of its many names there: ‘measure of love’. Around the world it has many different names but is most commonly known as ‘Marguerite’ because in French and German that means pearl – referencing the white petals. Several Marguerites in history have claimed the daisy as their flower. Marguerite of Anjou, Queen Margaret (mother of Henry VII), and Margaret (sister of Francis I) all wore daisies in some fashion whether the actual blossoms or embroidered versions.
The English name is derived from the Old English daeges-eaye or day’s eye because it opens with the day. Since thy don’t open on cloudy days perhaps that’s why I’ve always seen them as cheerful flowers – associating them with sunny days. While a field of daisies can be a cheerful sigh they are a menace to farmers since their roots emit toxic substances that damage crops. And, if you want a nice arrangement of cut flowers don’t put daisies in it because they will cause the other flowers to wilt.
According to Charles M. Skinner‘s book Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants the
“botanical term for the old world daisy, comes from the Belides, dryads of the mythological age, one of whom, while dancing on the green, was seen by Vertumnus, god of Spring. That observer, smitten with a sudden passion, ran forward to grasp the white and graceful creature in his arms, when to his grief and wonder, she turned an eye of fear and aversion on him, and, through divine aid in the transformation, sank to the earth in the form of the little daisy.”
So it seems that the daisy has always had somewhat of a fickle reputation – lovely but not very friendly.
Dandelion meant Oracle or Faithfulness in Victorian times.
It was a common practice in my childhood – apparently derived from a very old tradition – to blow off the seed heads of the spent blossom while making a wish. If all of the seeds were blown away your wish would come true and even if they didn’t the dandelion was still telling you something about your future. The number of seed heads left behind were supposed to signify the number of children you would have.
Algonquin Indian folklore contains a story of the dandelion that I find quite charming. The South Wind, Shawondasee, was said to be heavy, drowsy and lazy. Shawondasee liked to lie in the shade of live oaks and magnolias, inhaling the scent until his lungs were so full that when he exhaled their perfume could be smelled. Shawondasee admired a distant slender girl with yellow hair but could not work up the energy to approach her. Each day she seemed to be more lovely than the day before until one morning he saw that she no longer had yellow but gray hair. The legend continues that Shawondasee said “Ah my brother the North Wind has been here in the night. He has put his cruel hand upon her head and whitened it with frost.” Shawondasee sighed so greatly that his breath reached the faraway maid causing her gray hair to fall from her head. I found this legend in the book by Charles M. Skinner mentioned above which ends the telling of the legend with this line:
“Others like her came, and the earth is glad with them; but in spring Shawondasee sighs unceasingly for the maiden with the yellow hair as he first saw her.”
There’s so much legend and lore surrounding this tiny flower it is no wonder it gets weighed down into the grass.
We go back to Greek mythology again to obtain the source of its name. It seems that Zeus and Hera had a major disagreement over Zeus’ attraction to a young girl named IO. Zeus turned IO into a “tender little white heifer” to hider her from Hera and commanded the earth to provide delicacies to feed her. The result was the violet. Zeus named them Ione, the Greek word for violet, in her honor.
Venus is also associated with violets. In this mythological story Cupid mischievously answered Venus that her ‘bevy of girls’ was more beautiful than she. In retaliation she beat the girls until they turned blue and became violets. Violets are linked not only to love but to death and mourning.
On the side of love we’ve already seen the example of Zeus’ love of IO. It is also part of falling in love in Act II, Scene I of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm’d: a certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loosed his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
Yet mark’d I where the bolt of Cupid fell:
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flower; the herb I shew’d thee once:
The juice of it on sleeping eye-lids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.
Napoleon claimed he would return from Elba when the violets bloomed. But when he eventually did so Josephine had died. Before he was once more exiled he picked violets from her grave which were found in a locket, along with a piece of her hair, when he died. The reason for violets on Josephine’s grave may go back to Greece as well. When a Greek died the body was covered with violets and they were planted around the grave or tomb to “[carpet it] with color and fragrance”.
In England, the violet was used with rue and rosemary in funerary rituals. Supposedly these were tossed into the grave ‘for remembrance’ (rosemary for remembrance) but the violet actually guarded against “poisonous exhalations from the cemetery”.
When Eugenie was given bouquets of violets at her wedding she cried and later, when she was exiled to England and mourning the death of her son in Africa, the gift of ‘funeral flowers’ was said to have been the omen of ill luck for her. While In many places black is the color of mourning, purple has been associated with the church in mourning and Amethyst jewels used to be worn by widows and orphans. When Napoleon the Little, Eugenie’s husband, died he was carried to his tomb under a “pall of woven violets”.
We have both love and death in the Iroquois’ Legend of the Violet and the strands of the young maid’s hair which she wove for her lover are still seen on the petals of the flower.
That’s a lot to live up to for such a tiny flower. Even though the Victorian meaning for the flower is modesty perhaps it hides among the long grasses not out of modesty but to escape the pressure of its many associations.
Venus’ Looking Glass (A.K.A. bELLFLOWER)
The botanical name for this last flower is Campanula speculum has been compared to an ancient mirror. It’s relationship to Venus in mythology comes from the story of her lost looking-glass. Venus had a mirror that added beauty to whatever what reflected in it. A shepherd found it when she misplaced it. Cupid went looking for it and when he saw the shepherd transfixed while looking at himself in it he hastily struck it out of the shepherd’s grasp. In some versions the glass shattered and its pieces became this flower. In others (Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants) simply say that due to its divine nature it “left its impress on the sod in a host of other flowers.”
Whatever its origins this tiny flower reflects beauty wherever it is found.