My coworker, who really enjoys Greek Mythology, recently asked me if I knew if certain flower names were connected to Greek Mythology. I could tell my coworker that I am just familiar with the Hades and Persephone story. During our talk about such a complex theology, I looked up some of these plant names connected to Greek Mythology; it just happens Narcissus, Hyacinth, and Liriope were a few names that popped up on Google that I am definitely familiar with while working at a garden center. Upon further research, Ancient Greece flourished with plants and flower references in their mythology.
Greek mythology was used by Ancient Greece to tell stories about myths and folklore. These stories included how the world came to be through their origins, heroes, deities, and mythological creatures. The flowers and plants that are mentioned throughout Greek mythology is on an anthropology scale more than an ethnobotany scale because anthropology looks at culture and development instead of plant usage. Upon my research, I have learned that there are many different types or flora that have been mention in these ancient myths. I have taken four different plants off of a list from the Theoi Project (link at the end of my article) that stood out to me the most. Three of the plants have a connection to my life and one plant is a wild card.
I remember when I ate my first, FRESH fig. They were all ready to picked on one of the bushes at my first garden center that I ever worked at. My one coworker harvested two of them and she gave one to me. She said figs were the fruit of the gods. She was not wrong on that statement. In the story of Zeus battling the Titans, Gaia (a primordial deity, Earth, mother of Titans) turned her son, Sykeus, into a fig tree (a Ficus variety from my interpretation) to protect him. Demeter, goddess of Agriculture, gave and created the first cultivated fig as a thank you for Phytalos’s hospitality. Demeter was known to bestow gifts for the hospitality that she received from others. The figs are also mentioned in the story of the eight forest nymphs. Each nymph presided over a certain type of tree. The nymph, Skye, is the nymph of the fig tree. Branches of figs saved Odysseus from being sucked into a whirlpool. Figs or anything in the Ficus family has not only been mentioned in Greek Mythology but the origins has been mentioned in Egyptian mythology and in Christianity as well. The mythological and biblical origins of this plant has been used in different ways.
One trip that I took in college was to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. In the huge conservatory, they had different areas dedicated to different plants. One area had this magnificent tree and I was truly captivated by its beauty was an Olive tree. I have always known that Olive trees represented peace in Christianity. The connection between my religion and plants has been really dear to me. The Olive tree is very important in Greek culture and has strong representation in Greek mythology. In one myth, Athena, goddess of war and craft, and Poseidon, god of the sea, had a contest to see who take Athens. Zeus told the both of them that whoever produced the best gift can take the city. Poseidon created the horse and Athena created the first olive tree growing out of rock from Acropolis. Acropolis is known as a historical site that dates back to the late Cretaceous period. Acropolis of Athens holds amazing cultural history to the Greeks and home to a lot Temples. The gods felt that Athena’s creation was better than Poseidon’s and gave Athena the city of Athens. In the story about a maiden named, Moria who was very close to Athena was turned into a scared Olive tree when Moria died. Zeus crowned winners at the Olympian Games with Olive branches as crowns. Beyond the Greek mythology of the Olive tree, they are also known as one of the most important tree of Greek culture. Olive trees had multiple uses in the Old World. Olive trees produced olives for food as well as oil. Olive oil was used for cooking and aiding in light source. Sometimes the oil was used as perfume or in hair. Olive oil was also used as a cure all medicine according to Hippocrates, the founder of medicine and Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, suggested it be used as a contraceptive.
My professor from my horticultural soils class had me read the story of Hades and Persephone. This story mentioned the Narcissus and why their bloom time is when it is in the early spring. The story goes that Hades, god of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone, goddess of springtime. Hades tricked Persephone by going into the underworld which caused her mother Demeter to search everywhere. Demeter made herself into the underworld to get her daughter back but Hades already convinced Persephone to eat the pomegranate seeds. Once you eat in the Underworld, you cannot leave and this was the way that Hades would keep Persephone all to himself. Demeter was furious. Both Demeter and Hades made a deal that Persephone would live in the underworld for six months and return to back to earth. This represents the season - Persephone living with Hades represents plants going into dormancy for the fall and winter months and Persephone returning back to earth represents plants coming out of dormancy in the spring and summer. To celebrate Persephone’s return, the Narcissuses bloom as well as the crocus. The mentioned of Narcissus does not stop there with Greek Mythology. There is a story of the Greek goddess of punishment of evil deeds, Nemesis (another type of flower) punished Narkissos to fall in love with his reflection because he would scorn those who would try and court him. Narkissos was so obsessed with his image that he slowly faded away and turned into the Narcissus flower, or in that family that we know today. As I reflect on this mythology story, I do have a hunch that Narcissus could also mean the Paperwhite flower because the Paperwhites are botanically a Narcissus. Narkissos’s mother, Leiriope whose name meant “Face of the Narcissus” was nymph. The mythology of Narkissos and Leiriope is why we have the flowers Narcissuses and Daffodils.
Plants are filled with surprises - from new growth to reseeding itself and even when new blooms shine. A plant’s lifecycle will always amaze me. As I explore ethnobotany by learning about plant origins or taking a mental trip back into the ancient world, the lightbulb shines a little bit brighter and my love for plants grows stronger in my heart. Unfortunately, I do come across plants that just does not grow on me. One plant that comes to mind is the Strawflower because I do not like how they look after you dead head, I am definitely not a fan of the textured flower, I feel that they just do not give enough color. These opinions of mine have really allowed me to block out the plant entirely and it will never be sought to be planted by me; however, the ability to research and to learn stories of plants can immediately change a plant’s reputation to oneself. Strawflower, also called Helichrysum is known as the everlasting flower in Greek Mythology. Helichrysum was dried out to decorate the temples of the gods in the ancient world. When the plant is dried out, the flower stays intact perfectly which is why it’s known to have a sense of immortality in folklore. In Homer’s the Odyssey, the king’s daughter, Nausicaa gave Ulysses a vile of the extract of Helichrysum to help him recover to regain his strength. The ancient Greeks used the properties of Helichrysum for healing. It is amazing
The origins of plants and stories of how things came to be through mythology is amazing. These stories have been passed down from generation to generation on how things came to be or how these plants are utilized. This what ethnobotany, as well as anthology is all about. There are so many other plants that have been mentioned in mythologies from different cultures and folklore throughout time. Thank you so much for reading my findings of a topic that I am truly passionate about! Comment, like and share for a part two.
All plants are our brothers and sisters.
It’s that time of the year again when a Mercury goes into Retrograde! Three or four times a year, Mercury goes past Earth with the optical illusion that is it spinning backwards. This illusion is known for shaking things up within the Zodiac signs affecting each one of them differently. Your favorite plant girl is a Scorpio and I recently got a white sage, Salvia apiana (also referred as White Sage) , to cast bad vibes out of my home during this period of Retrograde to be safe. I got my white Sage plant from work, that came from my organic plant supplier. One thing that stands out from this company is their tags. The tags are filled with really cool information. One thing that stood out on this tag was how American Indians used it and that the Sage had ceremonial properties. One thing that we need to remember about Ethnobotany is how cultures and civilizations used plants. My page about Ethnobotany is giving us the opportunity to take a stroll back into time and to learn how plants were used before us.
We all know that Sage, Saliva, comes in different forms. We see pots of them as perennials, annuals, and herbs at our local garden centers. We use the perennials and annuals to invite pollinators into our gardens. We use the herb to add flavor to vegetables and meat in our cooking. Our ability to use Sage in ornamental plantings and in culinary is so simple but for American Indians, Sage has a deeper purpose .The word Salvia (Sage) came from root word to heal in Latin. Sage was known as a spiritual herb to cleanse by the American Indians.
American Indians had various spirituality practices - from Monotheism to Polytheism (one god to multiple gods), Animistic - where creatures have spiritual essence, Shamanism - where a practitioner interacts with the spirit world, and Pantheism - where reality is equal to divinity. These spiritual beliefs varies among tribes across the land. There are many different values and traditions passed on from generations to generations. Each tribe had their own creation story and own theories to how things came to be. One thing that they all had in common was harmonizing with nature and that the world was connected to the supernatural one. That was their beautiful culture.
The sacred herb, White Sage, is native to Southwestern California and Baja California. There were various tribes that were found in this region of California. The tribes that lived in this area were Chumash, Alliklik, Kitanemuk, Serrano, Gabrielino Luiseno Cahuilla, and the Kumeyaay (nahc.ca.gov). These tribes used the White Sage for smudging, smoking, and medicinal uses.
One of my memories from growing up is attending Church is during the Lenten season the Priest used Frankincense. In the Catholic religion, the burning and smoke from Frankincense represents purification and a reminder of wonder and awe. Just like how Frankincense connected Catholics to Heaven and Earth, White Sage connected the American Indians to the Spiritual World. The American Indians used, and still used today a practice called smudging. Smudging was/is a spiritual practice that the American Indians used to remove negative energy by setting fire to small bundles of dried White Sage. Smudging Sage banished negative energy and healed on all levels - from physical to spiritual. Smudging Sage was also used during prayers, funerals, and celebratory ceremonies. The leaves from White Sage were scattered around spiritual alters to keep away evil spirits.White Sage is still used today among American Indian Tribes.
Sage was also smoked in American Indian culture. The practice of smoking Sage promoted relaxation, clarity, and reduced anxiety. White Sage was also used for medicinal practices among the tribes. American Indians used White Sage as a tea for treating colds and to ease digestion problems. White Sage tea was to relieve congestion of the lungs, throat, and sinuses too. Sage was use to treat wounds and inflammation. The roots were utilized in the birthing process to expel the afterbirth.
The ability to appreciate culture is a beautiful thing. During my researching there has been a lot of articles about culture appropriation, which is taking parts of “non-dominate” cultures without using history and awareness doing so. I have been reading up and collecting my own thoughts for this article. I put non-dominate in quotes because I feel our old world is important and that all cultures should be respected and recognized. I did mention in the beginning of my article that I have a White Sage plant myself, which is used as ornamental use only. My houseplants that I have are strictly for ornamental and loved as my plant babies. The importance of Anthropology and Ethnobotany is to learn and appreciate once was. Challenge yourself to broaden your knowledge and make connections when it comes to learning about any type of culture.
Sources of Guidance and Inspiration:
I’ve been amazed by the Anthropology hall at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The chance to explore ancient cultures from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania set a spark in my soul to explore and to gain knowledge on these societies and cultures. The impact of these civilizations has guided us to modern times from art and literature to technology and communication. One side of Anthropology that really strikes my interest is the way that these civilizations utilized plants. We call this Ethnobotany.
Ethnobotany is the study of the relationship between plant and human through culture and how plants are used in the past and present. Some common usages of plants are for medicine, food, religion, intoxicants and aesthetics. The father of botany, Richard Evans Schultes deceives the study as “Ethnobotany simply means investigating plants used by societies in various parts of the world”
Ethnobotany is fascinating to me because I love my relationship to plants. Being able to enjoy reading and researching about how these ancient societies used plants opens up a new world for me because it allows me to learn new techniques in the field. I get to learn about all these different usages for plants beyond the garden bed and vegetable garden. I get to connect to the Old World.
The Neolithic Era of the Stone Age, around 12,000 years ago, became an agricultural revolution by learning and investing in growing and producing from plants. The lifestyle went from hunting and gathering to agriculture and creating a way of life by staying in one area with a goal of making a population as big as possible. We have come so far globally with our agricultural practices because of the Neolithic Era.
One of the ancient, seven wonders of the world are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (about 600 BC to 1 AD). The hanging gardens were built in the ancient city of Babylon, now present day Hillah in Iraq. The purpose of the garden was to make King Nebuchadnezzar II’s wife, Queen Amytis of Media happy because she missed the greenery of her homeland. This could be the earliest form of plants making people happy. The on site gardeners hanged plants and used tiered garden beds. This is the earliest form of ornamental horticulture. Think about how ornamental horticulture has come – we have landscape architecture and design, plant breeders and plant growers – such as Monrovia and Proven Winners, and amazing garden centers to educate us to help us achieve what we want aesthetically.
Various ancient civilizations used plants as medicine to heal. Ancient Greece used Licorice root as an asthma treatment and Balkan Peony root for open wounds during the Trojan war. Ancient India used Turmeric for colds and sore muscles. They also used the Neem plant for anti-fungal properties. Ancient India medicine used Lady Ferns for minor cuts and burns. These civilizations set the pace for what our medicine is today. Without plants being used for medicine in the Old World, we may not be as advanced we are today. I’m really excited to further look into ancient medicine practices as well as the plants used for spiritual and religious practices.
We can see that plants have been used since the Stone Age to benefit people and we can see that plants have been used to help people through ancient medicine practices. I’m really excited to take you on this journey with me when it comes to entering the world of Ethnobotany. Thank you for reading my thoughts on Ethnobotany! What is your favorite fact on how people used plants in the Old World? What culture would be your favorite to learn from when it comes to plants? Leave comments below!