Gods in Our Gardens

Phillip Peters
Adams County Master Gardener

There are lots of ways to look at a garden. But, have you ever tried this one? Remember all those stories of ancient gods, goddesses and heroes the teacher told in school? Those myths of Greece and Rome? The Trojan War? Well, many of these myths are preserved in the scientific names of some of the most common plants in our gardens. Let's take a look at some of them.

The story of NARCISSUS comes to mind at once. This was the young man who fell in love with his reflection and died as a result of this self-love. He was the son of the nymph, Leirope ('Lily-voice' in Greek). The prophet Teiresius had foretold that he would live to a ripe old age, provided that "he never knows himself." One story says the nymph Echo fell madly in love with him. When he rejected her she prayed to Aphrodite for revenge. Aphrodite caused him to fall in love with his own image when he saw it reflected in a spring. He could not tear himself away from the sight of it.

As a result he wasted away to nothing. When Echo went to find the body all she found was the pale yellow flower with its distinctive center. Another story says that Artemis, goddess of the hunt, angry at Narcissus because he had caused the death of one of his suitors who was a devotee of Artemis, decided on revenge. She caused him to fall in love with himself. Out hunting one day, Narcissus came upon a clear spring. As he bent over to get a drink, he saw his reflection for the first time in his life. He fell madly in love with it. When he discovered he could never possess it, this version states that he stabbed himself. From his blood sprang the white narcissus with its red corolla. Scholars believe that in antiquity this may have been a type of marigold, rather than the flower we know today.

Another popular favorite is the HYACINTH. Hyacinth was the son of Amyclas, king of Sparta, and Diomede. He was very handsome and fell in love with Apollo. While they were playing at throwing the discus, the west wind, Zephyrus, caused Apollo's discus to swerve. It hit Hyacinth in the chest and killed him. Even though Apollo was the god of medicine, he could not revive Hyacinth. To preserve his friend's memory, the god caused Hyacinth's blood to be changed into a flower. However, our hyacinth may be different from the one the ancients thought of on hearing his name. The flower the Greeks connected with his name may have been a kind of iris. There is one in the Mediterranean whose petals had black markings that seemed to form the Greek letters AI AI. This means 'alas' in Greek.

The scientific name for the sunflower is the HELIOTROPE, chosen because it means 'turning towards the sun.' The connection with the Sun God, Helios, is easy to see. Helios had fallen in love with and seduced a young maiden named Leucothoe. His former beloved, a girl named Clytie, became furious and told Leucothoe's father, Orchamus, who was king of Persia. Orchamus buried Leucothoe alive. As so often happened in myth, instead of dying, Helios preserved her by transforming her into the frankincense tree. Meanwhile, Clytie continued to pine for her former lover, Helios. Her great love for the Sun god caused her to follow his every motion across the sky. She wasted away, turning into the heliotrope whose head still follows the sun's course across the sky.

As we come to summer we can't overlook the ROSE. The ancients were as enthralled with its beauty as much as we are. The roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, sings the praises of southern Italy with its 'twice-blooming roses.' This beautiful flower was said to have been created by the goddess of flowers, Chloris (Flora, in Latin). Walking in the forest one day, she came upon the lifeless body of a nymph. Deciding to preserve the girl's memory, she changed her into a flower. But, Chloris did not act alone. She called upon Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, to give the flower beauty. The god Dionysus, god of wine, helped by giving the new flower a sweet nectar. The god of the west wind, Zephyr, gave his help by blowing away the clouds so that the Sun God, Helios (Apollo) could make her bloom. This is the only flower whose existence is due to the concerted efforts of more than one god/goddess. No wonder its beauty is so outstanding!

Not far behind is the PEONY. Its extraordinary beauty is owed to the king of the gods, Zeus. It seems the god of medicine, Asclepius, had a pupil named Paean or Paeon. The sun god's mother, Leto asked Paeon to obtain for her a secret magical herb that would help women in childbirth. Whether jealous that he had not been asked, or angry that Paeon had taken one of his secret remedies, Asclepius tried to kill his star pupil. Zeus came to the boy's rescue by turning him into the flower.

Zeus or the Roman equivalent, Jupiter, also gave us another helpful plant, the familiar Hen-&-chicks, SEMPERVIVUM TECTORUM. Its Latin name means 'everlasting of the roofs.' Jupiter's weapon of choice was the thunderbolt. This delightful little plant was grown on rooftops to protect the occupants from lightning strikes.

Mint, MENTHA, derives its name from the nymph Minthe. The god of the Underworld, Hades, fell madly in love with her. When his wife, Persephone, learned of this, she became jealous and turned the hapless nymph into the plant.

The shrub ANDROMEDA preserves the name of the daughter of a North African king. She was being offered as a sacrifice to a sea monster. She was saved by Perseus who turned the sea monster into stone by showing it the head of MEDUSA, the Gorgon whom he had just slain.

Sometimes we don't know the whole story. The ANEMONE is said to have sprung from the blood of the youth Adonis who died when he was being pursued by the goddess Diana. The ASTER grew from the tears of the goddess of the starry sky, Asterea. We know her as the constellation Virgo. She cried when she looked down to earth and saw no stars here. ARETHUSA preserves the name of a nymph who was being chased by the river god, Alpheus. The Roman poet Ovid tells us that the CROCUS was named for a youth who was changed into this flower, just as the greenbrier, SMILAX, preserves the name of a young maiden who also underwent a metamorphosis. Unfortunately, he doesn't give us the details. Elsewhere there is the legend that the VIOLET sprang from the blood of the Eastern god Attis as he was dying.

No, I haven't forgotten the Trojan War. Many gardens have yarrow in them. Its scientific name, ACHILLEA, commemorates the famous warrior Achilles. It is said that he used this plant to help treat his wounded soldiers on the plains of Troy since it stanches the flow of blood. The herb elecampane, INULA HELENIUM, preserves the name of none other than Helen, whose beauty was at the root of the war. And the herb wall germander, TEUCRIUM, preserves the founder of Troy himself, the legendary king Teucer.

Certain names alone conjure up images of the gods and goddesses. ARTEMISIA from the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis; IRIS, the messenger goddess of Hera, Queen of the gods; LUNARIA from Luna, Latin for the Moon. NEMESIA recalls the goddess of retribution, Nemesis. ASCLEPIAS preserves the name of the god of medicine and healing. SILENE is from the name Silenus who was the tutor of the Roman god of wine and the woods, Bacchus. And of course, all those little water goddesses are recalled in the name NYMPHEIA. Centaurs, those monsters who were half man and half horse are remembered in CENTAUREA.

So the next time you walk through your garden, keep an eye out for reminders of all those legends and heroes of long ago.

Read other articles by Phillip Peters