My interest in the subject of this week’s column actually began nearly 70 years ago, when I was a student at Cornell University. In my junior year, I was required to take a course in plant taxonomy, the study of the naming of plants. It was a fascinating study, taught by a world-famous professor, George H.M. Lawrence, who was backed up by Liberty Hyde Bailey. Bailey is remembered as the “father of American floriculture” as we know it today. Those two professors made learning the botanical (Latin) names of plants not only easy and interesting, but exciting as well. Interspersed with all the Latin terms and the reasoning for the names were stories of some of the myths and folklore swirling around the plant world. I want to relate a few of those tales to you today.
I want to start out with how the lovely flower the forget-me-not got its name. In the dozen or so years that I have been writing this column, I have told it twice. Sorry about that, for you who remember reading about it, but it is my favorite story. An Austrian legend tells us of a knight and his betrothed walking along the banks of the Danube on the eve of their wedding. They saw a beautiful, dainty blue flower near the banks of the river, in danger of being swept away. The woman cried that such a beautiful plant should not be lost, and the man worked his way down to the river to get the flower and lost his footing as he grabbed it. As he was swept away by the current, he threw the flower to the woman he loved and shouted, “forget me not, my love.”
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The next paragraph just may kill all daffodil sales this spring. It seems that in Greek mythology, Persephone was picking daffodils in a meadow when Hades burst from a chasm in the earth and carried her away. From that day, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians considered it a flower of death. It is said that soldiers of those nations carried daffodil bulbs with them because if they were mortally wounded they could eat the bulb, as it had narcotic and toxic properties, and so they would have a painless death.
In another legend, the god of the forests and fields met a beautiful nymph named Syringa. He greatly admired her grace and beauty and tried to talk to her, but she was frightened and ran away. When he ran after her, she turned into a beautiful bush with lovely lavender flowers with a heavenly smell. Thus came the Latin name for this bush that graces our homes and parks during the month of May: syringa.
Did you know that hydrangeas have a low level of cyanide? Did you know that eating a handful of apple seeds has enough cyanide to kill you? Many plants and plant parts can contain poisons that can harm you if you eat enough. So leave the hydrangeas in the garden and do not put them on a cake top because the bride really wants blue flowers. Superstition has it that you should never plant a hydrangea by your door: Your daughters will never marry. This plant can represent devotion and gratitude, but it also tells a lady that “you are cold.” Referring back to Kate Greenwood’s book, “The Language of Flowers,” that discussed the meaning of flowers, Victorian men sent a bouquet of hydrangeas to a woman who spurned them. That action accused them of frigidity.
Needless to say that from the earliest time, the rose has always been associated with love. I have found no less than a dozen references to how the rose came to be. In one, Cupid, carrying a vase of nectar, was rushing to a council of the gods when he stumbled and the nectar spilled on the ground and a plant arose from the earth at that spot, in the form of a rose.
The daisy was once known as “day’s eye” by the Anglo-Saxons because it opened with the rising of the sun and closed at evening. In Celtic legend, the spirits of children who died in childbirth scattered daisies on the earth to cheer their grieving parents.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to myths and folklore of flowers. Wait until we explore plants and trees.
Stay well. Wear a proper mask.
Carmen Cosentino operates Cosentino’s Florist in Auburn with his daughter, Jessica. He was elected to the National Floriculture Hall of Fame in 1998, and in 2008, received the Tommy Bright award for lifetime achievements in floral education. In 2016, Carmen and Jessica were presented Teleflora’s Tom Butler Award, naming Cosentino’s the florist of the year at the company’s annual meeting in Hawaii. Carmen can be reached at email@example.com or (315) 253-5316.
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