Flowers: Legends and Lore


red amaryllisAmaryllis – According to legend, Amaryllis was a shy, timid maiden who fell deeply in love with Alteo, a shepherd with Hercules’ strength and Apollo’s beauty. Her affections, however, were unrequited. Alteo loved plants and flowers more than anything and said he would only give his heart to the maiden who brought him a unique flower he had never seen before. Hoping she could somehow win Alteo’s heart, Amaryllis sought advice from the oracle of Delphi. Following the oracle’s instructions, she dressed in maiden’s white and appeared at Alteo’s door for thirty nights, each time piercing her heart with a golden arrow. When at last Alteo opened his door, there before him stood Amaryllis with a striking crimson flower that had sprung from the blood of her heart. Today, we associate this stunning red flower with the holidays.

"Red Anemones" by Chris Beck, watercolor, 2009

“Red Anemones” by Chris Beck

red amaryllis red amaryllis red amaryllis

Anemone (Red) – Greek mythology links the red anemone to the death of Adonis. Adonis, a handsome young man, was loved by Aphrodite, the goddess of love. One day while hunting, he was mortally wounded by a fierce boar. Aphrodite heard the cries of her lover and arrived to see Adonis bleeding to death. Red anemones are said to have sprung from the earth where the drops of Adonis’ blood fell. In other versions of the myth, Aphrodite’s tears are said to have caused the transformation. Christians later believed the flower’s red color represented the blood shed by Jesus Christ. Anemones sometimes appear in paintings of the Crucifixion.

purple aster

Aster – Because of their wildflower beauty and lush texture, asters have long been considered an enchanted flower. The name is derived from the Greek word for “star,” and the star-like flowers can be found in a rainbow of colors—blue asters in gardenwhite, red, pink, purple, lavender, and blue, with mostly yellow centers. According to one legend, a field bloomed with asters when Virgo scattered stardust to the earth. Another version of the legend claims that the goddess Astraea, whom Zeus had placed amongst the stars as the constellation Virgo, began to cry when she looked down upon the dark, starless earth. It is said that asters bloomed where her tears fell. In ancient times, it was thought that the odor from an aster’s burning leaves could drive away evil serpents.

pink carnationCarnation – In ancient Rome, carnations were known as “Jove’s Flower” as a tribute to their beloved king of the gods, Jupiter. Some scholars suggest that the name comes from the Latin “carnis” (flesh) referring to the flower’s original pinkish-hued color; others say that it derives from the word “corone” (flower garlands) or “coronation” because carnations were used in Greek ceremonial crowns. The Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) wrote in his “Metamorphoses” how the goddess Diana was returning from an unsuccessful deer hunt when she met a shepherd who was playing a panpipe. She assumed that he had scared the game away with his flute tones; so, as punishment, she tore his out eyes and threw them between the stones. When she began to regret her actions, the eyes changed into carnations. It is believed that the French name for carnation, oeillet, comes from this legend.

Christmas roseChristmas Rose – The legend of the Christmas Rose tells of a poor, young shepherdess who came to visit the baby Jesus. When she saw that the Magi had brought rich offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, she stood outside the door quietly weeping. She had searched the countryside for flowers to bring, but there was not even a single bloom to be found in the bitter cold. An angel watching over her knew about her fruitless search and took pity. He gently brushed aside the snow at her feet, and there sprang up a cluster of beautiful white roses with pink-tipped petals. The angel softly whispered that these roses were more valuable than gold, frankincense, and myrrh for they were pure and made of love. The maiden joyfully gathered the flowers and offered them to the holy child, who smiled.

white chrysanthemumChrysanthemum – A German legend tells about the origin of the white chrysanthemum. One cold, snowy Christmas Eve in Germany’s Black Forest, a peasant family was sitting down to a meager supper when they heard wailing. At first they thought it was the wind; but after hearing the sound repeatedly, they opened the door and found a beggar. The poor man was blue with cold. They took him in, wrapped him in blankets, and shared their food. Afterwards, the blankets were shed, revealing a man in shining white clothing with a halo around his head. He explained that he was the Christ child and left. The next morning, outside the door where he had stood, were two white chrysanthemums. In Celtic folklore, chrysanthemums in the garden were considered a meeting place for the faeries.

According to Japanese legend, in the beginning there were so many gods in heaven that some, including the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami, were sent to the earth on a cloud-bridge. Once on earth, the goddess created the gods of the winds, mountains, sea, and others, finally dying after creating the god of fire. Izanagi missed Izanami, so he followed her to the place of Black Night where she had gone, There he found only vile sights and was pursued by the old hag of Black Night. Narrowly escaping back to the earth, Izanagi went straight to the river for a purification bath. As he shed his clothing and they touched the ground, they turned into twelve gods; his jewels became flowers, and his necklace a golden chrysanthemum.

golden chrysanthemum burnt-orange chrysanthemum dark pink chrysanthemums

daffodils in vaseDaffodil – According to Greek mythology, Persephone was innocently picking daffodils in a field in Enna when Hades, bursting through a cleft in the earth, carried her away in his chariot. The ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all regarded the daffodil as the flower of death. Roman soldiers were said to have a sachet of daffodil bulbs among the other items in their sack. daffodils in a gardenIf a soldier received a mortal wound, he was instructed to consume several bulbs; and because daffodil bulbs have narcotic toxic properties, the soldier would experience a painless death. In medieval times, there was a legend that if you looked a daffodil and it drooped, it was an omen of death. It is believed that daffodils should never be present at a wedding because they may cause vanity in the bride.

Dahlia – Lady Elizabeth Webster was just 23 when she left her husband and ran away with 20 year-old Lord Holland. The birth of a son out of wedlock forced the Hollands to live abroad fordahliaseveral years. Some time between 1800-1805, Elizabeth saw her first dahlias in Spain and sent some home. She is generally credited with introducing the flower in England. After the couple had been married for twenty years, Lord Holland wrote a poem to Elizabeth:

The Dahlia you brought to our isle
Your praises for ever shall speak:
Mid gardens as sweet as your smile,
And colour as bright as your cheek.

daisyDaisy – The daisy was once known as “Day’s Eye” by the Anglo-Saxons because it opened and closed with the sun’s rays. According to Celtic legend, the spirits of children who died in childbirth scattered daisies on the earth to cheer their grieving parents. Ancient Romans believed the daisy was once a lovely wood nymph who shrank into a timid daisy when Vertumnus, the god of spring, expressed his love for her. Associated with Venus, the goddess of love, the daisy is commonly used as a lovers’ divination by plucking the petals while chanting “s/he loves me, s/he loves me not.”



Forget-me-not – An Austrian legend tells of a man and his betrothed walking along the banks of the Danube on the night before their wedding. They saw a small blue flower in the water being swept past them by the river’s currents. The woman cried that such a lovely flower should be lost; so the man jumped into the water to save it, but was swept away. His final act was to throw the flower onto the river bank with the shout “forget me not, my love!”

Foxglove – According to northern European legend, woodland nymphs distributed the foxglove flowers to foxes who wore them on their toes to soften their step as they hunted. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon “foxes glofa” or glove of the fox, in reference to the finger-like appearance of the blossoms. It is considered lucky to have this “flower of the faerie” growing from seed in your garden. However, it must not be transplanted as it may mask a faerie gate or home; nor red geraniumshould it be picked without the express permission of the wee folk. Another legend says that when the foxglove bows its head, it is the because the faerie folk are walking by.

Geranium – Ancient legend tells us that the geranium first grew when the Prophet Mohammed hung his shirt on a mallow plant to dry in the sun. Mohammed was so pleased by how well the plant held his shirt up to the sun, he covered the plant with velvety red blossoms that filled the air with a fragrance.

heather bouquet heather garden

Heather – Most heather is purple in color. The plant is considered lucky and is associated with Celtic magic and divination. According to myth, the Celtic bard Ossian’s beautiful daughter, Malvina, was betrothed to a gallant warrior named Oscar. One day while awaiting Oscar’s return from war, Malvina was approached by a messenger. Her beloved Oscar had died on a battlefield at Ulster and had sent the messenger with a spray of heather to give to her as a final token of his love. As she heard the news, Malvina began to cry and her tears fell on the flower, turning it white. White heather is said to grow over the final resting places of fairies and only where no blood has been shed.

"Delpht Blue" (Hyacinth) by Christine Foster, watercolor

“Delpht Blue” (Hyacinth) by Christine Foster

hyacinth medley Hyacinth – A Greek myth tells of Hyacinthus, a beautiful young man of Sparta, who was loved by the sun god Apollo. One day the two were amusing themselves, throwing a discus, when the discus struck Hyacinthus and killed him. Some legend persists that Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, also loved Hyacinthus and blew the discus off course out of jealousy. Apollo did not allow Hades to claim Hyacinthus. Instead, he created a beautiful flower from Hyacinthus’ spilled blood, which he called the hyacinth, and ordered that a three-day festival, the Hyacinthia, be held in Sparta every year to honor his friend.

“"Iris—Keeper of the Rainbow" by Josephine Wall

Iris – The Greek goddess Iris was the messenger of the gods and the keeper of the rainbow. Among her duties was that of leading the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields. Tus, to help her along, the Greeks planted purple iris on the graves of women. Louis VII of France is said to have adopted the iris, or fleur-de-lis, lavender lilac as a symbol of the French monarchy after dreaming about a purple iris shortly before setting out on his ill-fated crusade.

Lilac – According to one Greek legend, Pan, the god of the forests and fields, met a beautiful nymph named Syringa. He admired her grace and beauty and decided to talk to her; but she was frightened and fled. When Pan tried to catch her, she turned into an aromatic lilac bush. Thus, the Latin word for lilac is syringa. Another legend tells how the lilac’s flowers came into being when Spring drove away snow from the fields and raised the sun higher; a rainbow appeared. Spring then gathered sunbeams and rainbow colors and scattered them to Earth. Where white and violet colors fell, small fragrant pale lavender flower bushes appeared; in other places where white colors fell, there were white lilac bushes. The pale lilac was said to bring enchantment and faithfulness. It was believed that a bath in lilac water would enable one to catch a glimpse of a future love.

Lily – Legend has it that when Zeus fathered Hercules with the mortal woman Alceme, he wished his son to partake more fully of divinity. white lilies To this end, he drugged his wife Hera and had the baby brought to her and placed at her breast. As Hercules nursed, Hera awoke, horrified, and flung the baby from her. Some of her milk spilled across the heavens and formed the milky way; a white calla lilyfew drops fell to earth and formed the first lilies. According to Roman legend, Venus rose from the sea-foam and saw a lily. She became filled with envy at its whiteness and beauty. Seeing it as a rival, she caused a huge and monstrous pistil to spring from the lily’s snow-white center. Other folklore tells of lilies, unplanted by any human hand spontaneously appearing on the graves of people executed for crimes they did not commit. In the ancient Near East, the lily was associated with Ishtar (also known as Astarte) who was a virgin goddess of creation and fertility. In later times, Christians adopted the lily as the symbol of Mary who became the mother of Jesus while still a virgin. Painters often portrayed the angel Gabriel handing Mary a lily, which became a Christian symbol of purity. The lily was also associated with virgin saints and other figures of exceptional chastity.

The Song of the Lily of the Valley Fairy

A poem and illustration by Cicely Mary Barker

Illustration by Cicely Mary BarkerGentle fairies, hush your singing;
Can you hear my white bells ringing,
Ringing as from far away?
Who can tell me what they say?

Little snowy bells out-springing
From the stem and softly ringing—
Tell they of a country where
Everything is good and fair?

Lovely, lovely things for L?
Lilac, Lavender as well;
And, more sweet than rhyming tells,
Lily-of-the-Valley’s bells.

Lily of the Valley – According to one Christian lily of the valleylegend, the lily of the valley came into being from Eve’s tears after she and Adam were driven from the Garden of Eden. Another states that Mary’s tears turned to lily of the valley when she cried at the crucifixion of her son Jesus. The French tell a story about a holy man named Saint Leonard who lived in the Vienne Valley near Limoges in 559 AD. Saint Leonard was a brave and fearless fighter who, to better commune with God, went to live alone in the woods. In those same woods lived the dragon Temptation. The dragon demanded that Saint Leonard leave the woods. Fierce battles took place between them and much blood was spilled. It is said that poisonous weeds grew where the dragon’s blood fell; and wherever Saint Leonard’s blood touched the ground, lilies of the valley sprang up. There is also a legend that explains the affection of the lily of the valley for a nightingale who would not come to the woods until the flower bloomed in May. In Irish lore, lily of the valley are said to form ladders for faeries to climb to reach the reeds they use to weave their cradles.

lotus blossomLotus – Ancient Egyptians portrayed the goddess Isis as being born from a lotus flower, and they placed lotuses in the hands of their mummified dead to represent the new life into which the dead souls had entered. Because the flower closes at night and sinks underwater until dawn when it rises and opens again, it was symbolic of the sun, creation, and rebirth. According to one creation myth, it was a giant lotus which first appeared out of the watery chaos at the beginning of time, and from it the sun itself rose on the first day. Another Greek myth, originating in Heliopolis, tells a similar version. Before the universe came into being, there was an infinite ocean of inert water named Nun. Out of Nun emerged a lotus flower, together with a single mound of dry land. The lotus blossoms opened, and out stepped the self-created sun god, Atum, as a child. Buddha Manjushri on his lotus throneA slightly different version of the creation story originated in Hermopolis. In that version, the sun god who formed himself from the chaos of Nun emerged from the lotus petals as Ra, and each night the petals of the lotus blossom enfolded him when he returned to it. Lotuses also appear in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Hindus refer to the god Brahma as “lotus-born,” for he is said to have emerged from a lotus that was the navel, or center, of the universe. The lotus is also the symbol of the goddess Padma, who appears on both Hindu and Buddhist monuments as a creative force. The holiness of the flower is illustrated by the legend that when the Buddha walked on the earth he left lotuses in his trail instead of footprints. One myth about the origin of Buddha relates that he first appeared floating on a lotus. According to a Japanese legend, the mother of Nichiren (Lotus of the Sun) became pregnant by dreaming of sunshine on a lotus. Nichirin founded a branch of Buddhism in the 1200s. The phrase Om mani padme hum, which both Hindus and Buddhists use in meditation, means “the jewel in the lotus” and can refer to the Buddha or to the mystical union of male and female energies.

"Echo and Narcissus" by John William Waterhouse, 1903

“Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse, 1903

Narcissus – Narcissus was an exceptionally beautiful boy. By the time he had reached the age of sixteen, every nymph was in love with him, but he rejected them all. One day while he was hunting, the nymph Echo stealthily followed him through the woods.

Echo was beautiful, fond of the woods and sports, and a favorite of the goddess Diana. She had been, however, inclined to ceaseless chatter and always seeked to have the last word in any exchange. When Zeus had Echo detain his wife Hera in endless small talk, while he cavorted with the nymphs, Hera came to suspect Echo’s role in the deception and decreed that the nymph would henceforth speak only when spoken to, and then would only repeat the last few syllables uttered to her by others.

Echo was in love with the beautiful Narcissus and longed to address him, but was obliged to wait until he chose to speak first. Narcissus heard her footsteps as she followed him and shouted “Who’s there?” narcissusEcho answered “Who’s there?” And so it went. When she did show herself, he was annoyed and spurned her. She was so distraught over this rejection, she fled to the mountains and caves where her voice became nothing more than a whisper. The nymphs prayed for vengeance, and it was arranged that the vain Narcissus would fall hopelessly in love with himself. When Narcissus came to a deep pool in a forest and went to take a drink, he saw his own reflection in its smooth surface and immediately fell deeply in love. Forever doomed, Narcissus was unable to leave the pool and died there staring at his reflection. It is said that a single white flower, which now bears his name, grew on the spot.

purple pansyPansy – The legend of the pansy says the flower was originally white but turned bright purple where it had been pierced by Cupid’s arrow. The flower’s name is derived from the French pensee, meaning thought; and it is said that, if you stare into a pansy, you can see the face of a loved one. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare had his characters concoct a love potion from pansy juice which, when applied to a person’s eyelids while sleeping, made the person fall in love with the first living thing they saw upon awakening. The pansy is also known as Heart’s Ease, for it was believed that carrying the flower would ensure the love of your sweetheart. potted poinsettia

Poinsettia – Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who had no gift to present the baby Jesus at Christmas Eve services. Her heart was filled with sadness. Not knowing what else to do, Pepita knelt by the roadside and gathered a handful of common weeds, fashioning them into a small bouquet. As she approached the alter, the bouquet of weeds suddenly burst into brilliant red blooms of brilliant red, and all who saw them were certain that they had witnessed a Christmas miracle. From that day on, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or Flowers of the Holy Night, for they bloomed each year during the Christmas season.

"Poppy Field in the Fog" by Sherry Shinhuey Ho, Oil on linen, 2007

“Poppy Field in Fog” by Sherry Shinhuey Ho

Poppy – The ancient Greeks associated poppies with both Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Morpheus, the god of dreams. According to legend, the goddess of the harvest Demeter created the poppy so that she could sleep after the loss of her daughter Persephone. Roman mythology linked the plant to Somnus, the god of sleep. A type of poppy native to the Mediterranean region yields a substance called opium, a drug used in the ancient world to ease pain and bring on sleep. Morphine, a drug made from opium, gets its name from Morpheus. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the tincture of opium called laudanum was as casually bought and used as aspirin is today. Too much opium was lethal. The twin brothers Hypnos and Thanatos (sleep and death) were represented as crowned with poppies or carrying poppies in their hands.

white poppy red poppy salmon poppy yellow California poppy

The Red Rose

roseA Persian tale tells how a nightingale fell in love with a beautiful white rose and flew blindly towards its fragrance. Pierced by a thorn, the nightingale’s blood flowed over the white petals, turning them red. Romans believed that Venus blushed when Jupiter, the king of the gods, caught her bathing; and the white roses growing near her bath turned red in her blushing reflection. Another Roman tale tells how Venus’s tears, shed over unrequited love for Adonis, fell on a white rose and turned it red.

Rose – From the time of Solomon, the rose has been the flower most closely linked with love. The rose was sacred to Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and was connected to her messenger, Cupid. In one myth, Cupid was hurrying to the council of the gods, carrying a vase of nectar for them to drink. When he stumbled and spilled the nectar, it fell to the earth and sprang up in the form of roses. The flower’s name is derived from the Latin rosa and the Greek rhodon.

Jesuit René Rapin, in his famous Latin poem “Hortorum,” writes how the rose was once a beautiful Greek maiden named Rhodanthe who had many suitors. Entering the temple with her father and still being pursued by three of her suitors, Halesus, Brias, and Orcas, her beauty was so enhanced that people shouted, “Let Rhodanthe be a goddess, and let the image of Diana give place to her!” Rhodanthe was then raised upon the altar. Diana’s brother, Phoebus, became so enraged by this insult to his sister, he turned his rays against the newly-made goddess. Beautiful Rhodanthe lost her divinity and became a rose. Her feet became fixed to the altar as roots and her outstretched arms became branches; the people defending her became protective thorns, and her ardent suitors were turned into a convolvulus, drone, and butterfly.

"Still life with pink roses in a vase," by Joseph Cross, 1894

“Still life with pink roses in a vase” by Joseph Cross, 1894

According to another Greek legend, the rose was created by Chloris, the goddess of flowers. Chloris fashioned the rose from the body of a lifeless nymph she found in the woods. The three Graces encircled the flower and bestowed on it gifts of brightness, charm, and joy. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, gave it a portion of her beauty, and Dionysus, the god of wine, poured forth nectar to give it fragrance. Even Zephyr, the west wind, blew a clearing in the clouds so that Apollo, the sun god, could make the flower bloom. The gods hailed their new creation and immediately crowned the rose the Queen of Flowers. When Aphrodite presented a rose to her son Eros, god of love, the rose became a symbol of love and desire. Eros gave the rose to Harpocrates, the god of silence, to induce him not to gossip about his mother’s amorous indiscretions. Thus the rose also became a symbol of silence and secrecy.

In the middle ages a rose was suspended from the ceiling of a council chamber, pledging all present to secrecy, or sub rosa (“under the rose”). In Christian tradition, the rose is said to have first appeared in Bethlehem near the stable where Jesus Christ was born. Centuries later, a young Christian, sentenced to burn at the stake, was praying to God when it is said the flames turned to red-and-yellow rose petals.

sunflowerSunflower – There is a Greek legend about a maiden, who may have been a princess or a water nymph, named Clytie. Clytie fell in love with the sun god, Helios. Helios loved Clytie for a while, then abandoned her for another and left her deserted. Clytie stripped herself and sat naked, with neither food nor drink, for nine days on the rocks, yearning for Helios and watching him ride his chariot across the sky. After nine days the gods took pity on her and transformed her into a sun-flower. It is said that this is why the sunflower keeps it eye on the sun.

tulips in the gardenTulip – Tulips grew wild in ancient Persia, and for a long time were the symbol of avowed love. Persian legend tells of a youth named Ferhad who fell in love with a young woman named Shirin. Because she did not feel the same about him, Ferhad traveled into the desert to die from a “broken heart.” As he began to cry from heartache, his tears turned into beautiful tulips. According to another legend, the first tulips sprang up from the drops of blood shed by a lover. For centuries, poets sang the flower’s praises; and artists drew and painted it so often, when imported to Europe, the tulip was considered to be the symbol of the Ottoman Empire.

The Violet

A poem by Jane Taylor
with illustration by Maria Thomas

Down in a green and shady bed
A modest violet grew;
Its stalk was bent, it hung its head,
As if to hide from view.

And yet it was a lovely flower,
Its colors bright and fair;
It might have graced a rosy bower,
Instead of hiding there.

Yet there it was content to bloom,
In modest tints arrayed;
And there diffused a sweet perfume,
Within the silent shade.

Then let me to the valley go,
This pretty flower to see;
That I may also learn to grow
In sweet humility.

Violet – Greek legend tells of a nymph named Lo, who was loved by Zeus. To hide her from his wife Hera, Zeus changed Lo into a white cow. When Lo wept over the taste and texture of the coarse grass, Zeus changed her tears into dainty, sweet smelling violets only she was permitted to eat. violetAnother legend tells how a nymph was turned into a violet to escape the unwanted attention of Apollo. In Roman mythology, violets were said to be lesser goddesses who once dared to rival the beauty of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. Legend holds that Aphrodite beat her competitors into tiny purple flowers. According to Christian legend, white violets had adorned the path where Jesus walked on his way to his crucifixion. As an anguished Virgin Mary followed her son, the white violets turned purple.

Wedding – The bridal bouquet had its earliest beginnings in antiquity. Greek and Roman brides wore garlands of fresh herbs in their hair to discourage evil spirits from getting close to the couple. During the Victorian era, the flowers in a bridal bouquet were carefully chosen based on each flower’s special meaning. The practice of the bride tossing her bouquet after the wedding ceremony is said to have started in the 14th century, when taking a piece of the bride’s clothing, or something else that belonged to her, was considered good luck. Today, the bouquet is tossed into a group of female guests—it is said that the one who catches it, will be next to marry. The groom’s boutonnière is a nod to medieval times when a knight proudly wore his lady’s “colors” for all to see.