History in bloom


You can tell a daisy by its petals and a rose by its scent. But can you identify a blooming plant by its history or legend?

1. Legend has it that trading ships full of these exotic Turkish bulbs (no, not tulips) were wrecked off the coast of Holland. Crates broke open and the bulbs washed ashore, where they rooted and grew. A less-colorful, but more accurate, tale gives the credit to a German doctor, Leonhardt Rauwolf. He collected samples of them on his visit to Turkey in 1573 and brought them back to Europe. The plants became very valued, though the demand for them never reached the mania that surrounded tulips (also from Turkey) in 1600s Holland. Still, the Dutch had developed more than 2,000 varieties of the fragrant spring bloom by the 1700s. To the ancient Greeks, the flower's name originally applied to a blue gem, probably a sapphire.

2. As American pioneers moved West, they had to leave their cherished ornamental plants back East. To supply the homesteaders' hankering, plant peddlers began traveling. The peddlers sold plants and seeds door to door. A popular one was this droopy, heart-shaped flower whose Greek name, Dicentra, means "two spurs" Some 150 varieties of this flower are found in North America, western Asia, and the Himalayas. But the most popular type descends from a single plant brought to England in 1846 from the Chinese island of Chusan by an English botanist named Robert Fortune. Turned upside down, the flower looks like "a lady in the bath" or a "lady's locket," its other names.

3. Its name means "rainbow" in Greek. Varieties of this flower grow around the world. Occasionally, it can be found growing on roofs in Japan. Years ago, when the Japanese were forbidden to grow "unofficial flowers" in their gardens, gardeners placed them on their rooftops. In England, the flower was nicknamed "flag," after the Middle English verb that means "to flutter," because it flutters in the wind. In France, the flower is sometimes known as the "fleur-de-lis" (flur duh lee, or "flower of the lily"). The fleur-de-lis is also the name of a design that represents a white type of this flower. It appeared as a design on the scepters of Egyptian rulers in 1500 BC, and was also carved on the brow of the Sphinx. It became the symbol of the kings of France in the 1100s.

4. The genus name for this flower (Convallaria) comes from the Latin word for "valley," which may be the original home of the plant in Eurasia. Sprigs of the blossoms are worn on lapels on May Day in France. In Scandinavia, it's a good omen to find these "tears" in the woods on a spring day. In this country, the flowers are commonly included in bridal bouquets and considered the fifth thing that a bride should carry - along with things that are "old, new, borrowed, and blue."

5. Great Britain's Queen Anne, who reigned from 1665 to 1714, was especially fond of a particular kind of trumpet-shaped flower. She did excellent needlework and wove patterns of its blossom into carpets, tapestries, and dresses. It is said that her love for this plant led her to establish Kensington Palace Gardens, the first public garden in England. Three common names are often used synonymously for blooms belonging to the Amaryllidaceae family, though careful gardeners can tell them apart. Queen Anne would be pleased to know that England has so many of them today that it can export them to Holland.

6. The Chinese have grown Sho-yo ("the beautiful") with its large, fluffy blossoms of pinks, reds, and whites for more than 2,000 years. A single plant once sold for as much as 100 ounces of gold! It is surely the only flower to have a country named after it (Paeonia, in northern Greece, was conquered during the Persian wars). Roman colonizers brought the plant to Britain, where it was later grown widely in medieval gardens, especially in monasteries. These soft, fragrant puffs can live for 100 years or more if undisturbed. They are often found along old foundations in rural America, long after the houses they once graced have crumbled.

7. These natives of Spain and North Africa grow in cheerful clusters at our doorsteps once the snow melts. Flowering in early spring, they remind us that winter is on its way out. Saffron, a popular flavoring, is made from the stigma of an ancient variety of this plant. Mice love the bulbs of these cup-shaped flowers. Squirrels dig them up, too, and birds seem most fond of the ones with bright yellow petals.

8. Roman writer Pliny wrote that this flower would open only at the bidding of the wind. Indeed, it is named after the Greek word for "wind," and is also known as windflower. According to myth, it originally grew only on Mt. Olympus, the home of the gods. The plants grow around the world in the temperate zone. Some are colorful and have blooms the size of poppies; other types look pale and fragile.

9. Oddly, the name of this showy cluster of purple blossoms comes from the Arabic lilak, meaning "bluish." But color is not its only outstanding characteristic. It came to Persia from western China in the 1200s, and to Europe from Turkey 300 years later. American settlers planted the ornamental shrubs near their farmhouse doors and especially by their barns so they could enjoy the blossoms' heady, sweet scent.

SOURCES: 'Garden Flower Folklore' and 'Wildflower Folklore,' by Laura C. Martin; 'Flowers and Their Histories,' by Alice Coats; 'Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose?' by Mary Durant; '100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names,' by Diana Wells; The World Book Encyclopedia; Encyclopedia Americana.


(1) hyacinth; (2) bleeding heart; (3) iris; (4) lily of the valley; (5) daffodil. The common types are the narcissus, the daffodil, and the jonquil. Queen Anne's favorite was a jonquil, Narcissus jonquilla); (6) peony; (7) crocus; (8) wood anemone; (9) lilac.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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