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.