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Bulbs with a Past

by Debbie VanBourgondien

Lily Souvenir
Lily Souvenir. Photo courtesy of VanBourgondien

Sometimes we take our bulbs for granted, as if they had always been there and always will be, but most of the bulbs that we so love to greet in spring, and many of the summer and autumn ones as well, actually have a past – a history. Actually gardens themselves are not something that we always had. Flowers grew in the wild, until someone had the bright idea of digging them up and planting them in some kind of orderly fashion that pleased their eyes. And many of the bulbs in our garden today came from exotic climes, where plant explorers discovered them and brought them to Europe or the US – often at great personal risk – so that we could propagate and grow them in our gardens. Many times, the bulbs are named for those intrepid explorers.

Bulbs also have another sort of a past. It’s in folklore that we can often discover the story behind a plant’s name, or sometimes even in ancient mythology.

For instance, hyacinths were first found growing in Asia Minor, and came to England from Persia in 1561. There is an old legend that says they got to Holland because of a shipwreck. A trading ship carrying crates of what were then very expensive and exotic bulbs was wrecked off the coast of Holland, and when the crates broke open the bulbs were washed to shore and rooted there. The sight of great drifts of these bulbs must have gladdened the hearts of the Dutch, because they have been cultivating them in vast quantities ever since.

Something about them must have spoken of sadness to those in Asia Minor there, because they named this bulb after a sad story from Greek mythology. It seems that Zephyr, the god of the wind, was in love with the god Hyacinthus, son of the king of Sparta – but Apollo was Hyacinthus good friend and constant companion – which made Zephyr terribly jealous. One day Apollo and Hyacinthus were playing quoits, which is similar to horseshoes in that it involves tossing heavy metal rings over a post. When Apollo threw the ring, the enraged Zephyr caused the wind to make that ring hit and kill poor Hyacinthus. Broken-hearted, Apollo created the hyacinth flower from the blood that was spilt by his dear friend.

IrisLauraLouise
Iris Laura Louise. Photo courtesy of VanBourgondien

Irises have a mythological origin as well. They are named after the goddess Iris – the goddess of the rainbow. How fitting, considering how many colors they come in. The name Iris literally means “eye of heaven” (notice how we call the centers of our own eyes irises?) The main duty of the goddess Iris was to carry the souls of women to the Elysian Fields (the ancient Grecian equivalent to heaven), and so it became customary for men in Greece to plant irises on the graves of their beloveds.

The Fleur de Lys has been a royal symbol in France since King Clovis adopted it in 496 A.D. While most people assume that a fleur de lys is a lily (because that is the literal translation) it is actually an iris – the yellow flag iris that grows by streams and rivers. Clovis credited it with saving his life when, during a major battle, he found himself trapped between an army in hot pursuit on one side and a huge river on the other. It was the site of the flag iris growing halfway across that river that assured Clovis that the river was shallow enough to afford him an escape route.

Daffodil
Daffodils (Narcissus)

The plant that we call a 'daffodil’ (botanical name Narcissus), is also named after a Greek, although he was not one of the gods. Narcissus was a very handsome (and extremely vain) young man – so handsome that the mountain nymph Echo fell madly in love with him. But Narcissus far preferred his own beauty to that of poor Echo. In fact, he spent most of his time admiring his own reflection in a pool of water. This naturally frustrated Echo until she could endure it no longer and simply faded away to nothing. This angered the gods so much that they changed him into a flower – one that was doomed to spend eternity by the side of the pond, nodding at its own reflection.

So if the real name for daffodil is narcissus, why do we call it daffodil? It seems to have become a corruption of one of two words. In Old English, the word “affodyl” means “that which comes early” - which daffodils certainly do. Perhaps the name simply evolved over time, or was misheard. That also seems possible for the second word which may have been corrupted into the word daffodil. Apparently the ancient Normans thought the narcissus closely resembled a member of the lily family called the asphodel. Say it three times fast and you can see where someone might turn that into "daffodil."

In the South they seem to call almost any daffodil a jonquil. Technically, there are many different classes of daffs, with jonquils being only one of them, most easily recognized by its extremely slender leaves. In Spain, the people referred to these as junquillos which comes from the Latin name juncas, which means rush, another plant which the leaves closely resembled.

Pink Impression Tulip
Darwin Hybrid Tulip 'Pink Impression.' Photo courtesy of VanBourgondien

Tulips probably have the most exotic history of any bulb around. I’ve already recounted it in detail in The Romance of the Tulip - but to be brief, when tulip bulbs reached Europe they were considered to be status symbols and were quite expensive. People started competing to have the highest status by owning the most expensive bulbs until a single bulb could cost many times with weight in gold. Fortunes were made; fortunes were lost. It was all most unfortunate. Luckily, tulips are so lovely that despite that people continued to grow them and so we can enjoy them in our gardens today.

Unlike the other bulbs that we’ve been talking about, the tulip did not get its name from mythology. Instead it came about when plant explorers came to Turkey to see the famous gardens there. Tulips are truly ancient flowers. They have been found depicted on pottery which dates back to 2200 B.C. – so no one can be quite certain where they originated. But it was in Turkey that they first attracted the notice of the Europeans, who couldn’t help but comment on how much the flowers looked like upside down turbans – the hats which their hosts were wearing. The word tulip comes from the word tuliband, which is what those hats were called, and which was the nickname the European visitors gave them. Eventually that got shortened to the familiar name “tulip” by which we know them today.

But – lest you be disappointed, there is a mythological tale associated with the tulip, although this time the legend originated in ancient Persia rather than in Greece. Like the Greek myths, it all begins with jealousy. Farhad, a Persian youth was in love with Sharin, a beautiful young woman of the time. One day Farhad received word that Sharin was dead and was so devastated that he leapt from the nearest cliff to his death. The sad part of this story is that Sharin wasn’t dead at all. The message was sent by a jealous rival. But the ancient gods of Persia caused tulips to grow on the spot where Farhad met his end – thus giving birth to the colorful history of this beautiful bulb.

Many other bulbs have stories behind their names, although not nearly as colorful as the preceding ones. Chionodoxa is commonly known as “glory of the snow” because when they were first sited they were growing in a snowy meadow in the mountains of Turkey – and were indeed a glorious site.

Amaryllis comes from the Greek word which means sparkling. If you look at the petals in sunlight they really do seem to sparkle – and the flower itself lends a sparkle wherever it can be found growing.

We call Muscari armeniacum 'grape hyacinths' because they resemble little upside down bunches of minuscule grapes. But they got their botanical name, Muscari, because of their musky smell. By the same token, the name allium comes from the Latin word for onion – and if you’ve ever bruised the foliage of an allium plant you’ll understand perfectly.

We call the giant Fritillaria (F. imperialis) ‘Crown Imperial’ because it first bloomed in the court of the Austrian emperor.

Oriental Lily Lovely Girl
Oriental Lily Lovely Girl. Photo courtesy of VanBourgien

There is a lot of disagreement over why we call a lily a lily, but some say that it is because they were found growing in an ancient Sumerian city in the Tigris Euphrates valley called Susa, which is another name for Lily.

Lily of the Valley
Lily of the Valley. Photo courtesy of VanBourgondien

The botanical name for lily of the valley is almost an exact translation to the Latin for its common name. Valleria means valley and con means from – so while I am no more certain why they are called lilies than I am about the true lily, at least we know that they are from, or of, the valley.

Daylily David Kirchhoff
Daylily David Kirchhoff. Photo courtesy of VanBourgondien

Daylilies, on the other hand, are actually Hemerocallis – and that comes from Latin words that mean “beauty for a day.” Since the individual blooms on a daylily plant last only a single day, the name is understandable.

You may have thought that we stick those botanical names on plants to confuse you – but as you can see, they all came into being for a good reason – and many of them reflect a romantic past. Some even tell stories. So, as you can see, many of the bulbs in our garden really are plants with a past.


Editor's Note: Debbie VanBourgondien is The Bulb Lady.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

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