Amaryllis – 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 red flower that had sprung from the blood of her heart.
Today, this stunning flower is often seen during the Christmas holidays.
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.
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—white, red, pink, purple, lavender, and blue—with mostly yellow centers.
According to one legend, a field of asters sprang up 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.
Carnation – 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 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 eyes out 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 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.
Chrysanthemum – 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.
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.
In Celtic folklore, chrysanthemums in the garden were considered a meeting place for the fairies.
Roman soldiers were said to have a sachet of daffodil bulbs among the other items in their sack. If 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.
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.
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.
According to one Aztec legend, recorded by Spanish botanist Francisco Hernandez, the Earth Goddess Serpent Woman Coatlicue was ordered by the sky gods to impale a flower of Dahlia coccinea on the sharp point of a maguey leaf. She was then told to hold both to her heart all night. The next morning she gave birth to Huītzilōpōchtli—the deity of war and the sun who required regular human sacrifice to maintain his strength. He emerged from the womb fully grown, fully armed, and with a thirst for blood from the flowers’ eight blood-red rays.
“Some people find dahlias distasteful. Their fulsome blooms, top-heavy with an excess of petals, are considered vulgar . . . the conspicuous flaunting of so much provocative beauty can evoke a sense of foreboding. Perhaps the flower, nurtured and loved by tragic Empress Josephine, who traded on her looks but lost Napoleon, is destined to be suffused forever with her jealous melancholy. Certainly the brutal destruction of a sophisticated civilization paved the way for the dahlia’s introduction to the West. Oh, the troubles it’s seen!” —Andrew Smith, Strangers in the Garden. The Secret Lives of Our Favorite Flowers.
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!”
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 might mask a fairy gate or home; nor should it be picked without the express permission of the wee folk.
Another legend says that when the foxglove bows its head, it is because fairies 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 – Heather comes in shades of purple, pink, and white. 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 be lucky and grow over the final resting places of fairies and only where no blood has been shed.
Hyacinth – Hyacinths produce showy flowers in shades of blue, purple, white, pink, and red. The flowers appear in thick clusters on tall spikes—each spike has small, deeply fragrant, bell-shaped blooms.
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 – The Greek goddess Iris was the messenger of the gods and the keeper of the rainbow (the Greek word for iris). She acted as the link between heaven and earth. Among her duties was that of leading the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields. 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, 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 is said to bring enchantment and faithfulness. It is believed that a bath in lilac water enables one to catch a glimpse of a future love.
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.
Greek legend has it that after Zeus had fathered Hercules with a mortal woman named Alceme, he wished his son to partake more fully of divinity. To that end, he drugged his wife Hera and had the baby Hercules brought to her and placed at her breast. As Hercules nursed, Hera awoke. Horrified, she flung the baby from her. Some of her milk spilled across the heavens and formed the Milky Way. A few drops fell to earth and formed the first lilies.
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 the 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.
Lily of the Valley – According to one Christian legend, 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.
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 fairies to climb to reach the reeds they use to weave their cradles.
The Song of the Lily of the Valley Fairy
Gentle 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,
Lotus – 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. A 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.
In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the lotus is a sacred flower representing the path to spiritual awakening and enlightenment. Lotuses appear often in depictions of Hindu and Buddhist deities.
In Buddhist symbolism, the lotus represents purity of the body, speech and mind, as if floating above the murky waters of material attachment and physical desire.
One myth about the origin of the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, or “The Buddha,” tells that he first appeared floating on a lotus. The holiness of the flower is illustrated by a legend that, when he walked on the earth, The Buddha left lotuses in his trail instead of footprints.
Hindus refer to Brahma, or “The Creator,” as “lotus-born.” Responsible for the creation of the world and all living things, Brahma is said to have emerged from a lotus that was the navel, or center, of the universe.
Vishnu, the “Lotus-Eyed One,” and other important Hindu deities, including the goddess Lakshmi, are often portrayed sitting or standing on a lotus.
The lotus symbolizes what is divine or immortal in humanity, divine perfection, and the realization of inner potential and enlightenment. Its unfolding petals suggest expansion of the soul, and how the growth of its pure beauty from the mud holds spiritual promise.
“One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus is untouched by water.” —from Bhagavad Gita
According to a Japanese legend, the mother of Buddhist priest Nichiren became pregnant by dreaming of sunshine on a lotus. Nichirin, or “Lotus of the Sun,” founded the Mahāyāna 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.
Narcissus – In Greek mythology, Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus. Exceptionally beautiful, by the time Narcissus 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 sought 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?” Echo 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.
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.
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.
Poinsettia – Pepita, a poor Mexican girl, had no gift to give to 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. All who saw what happened were certain that had witnessed a Christmas miracle. From that day forward, the bright red flowers were known as the Flores de Noche Buena, or “Flowers of the Holy Night,” and bloomed each year during the Christmas holiday season.
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.
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 three ardent suitors were turned into a convolvulus, drone, and butterfly.
The Red Rose
A 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.
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, the 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.
Sunflower – 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 sunflower. It is said that this is why the sunflower keeps it eye on the sun.
Tulip – 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.
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 coarse grass, Zeus changed her tears into dainty, sweet smelling violets only she was permitted to eat.
Another 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, the 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 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.