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Ask Rufus: The stories flowers tell


An engraving of an iris published in London in 1798. The story of the iris arose from Iris' rainbow scarf in Greek mythology. In England it was said that fairies made their clothing from iris flower petals.

An engraving of an iris published in London in 1798. The story of the iris arose from Iris' rainbow scarf in Greek mythology. In England it was said that fairies made their clothing from iris flower petals. Photo by: Courtesy photo


Rufus Ward



Last week the snowdrops bloomed. It was almost two weeks earlier than they bloomed last year. It reminded me of the stories that flowers tell. Be they stories based on classical mythology or cultural heritage or simply on botany, they are a fascinating addition to each flower's beauty. 


Last year I wrote about snowdrops and how I recalled that my grandmother would never cut them to bring them inside. Little did I know then that there was a reason. I had always viewed them as foretelling the coming of spring, but they have another story. 


Although snowdrops had no herbal or medicinal value, they were popular in the gardens of monasteries. There are references to the flowers as early as the 1400s, when they were cherished for their beauty and associated with the footsteps of the Virgin Mary. Stories and legends arose surrounding them. One of the more interesting legends concerned Adam and Eve. After God removed them from the Garden of Eden, He created snowdrops. They were His sign to them that each year, winter would end and spring would soon follow.  


As to why my grandmother would not cut them with other flowers to bring inside, it was considered bad luck to do so. In the 1700s and 1800s they were the flowers that people would plant around the graves of children and infants. In 1821, the Edinburgh Magazine ran an article on the proper decoration of graveyards. It called the snowdrop "the earthly cradles of infancy and childhood." Snowdrops were to decorate graves not house interiors. 


The traditions of some plants go back to classical mythology. Such is the case with the hyacinth and the iris. The hyacinth is said to have been associated with Achilles and Ajax, Greek heroes of the Trojan War. The legend goes that Achilles fell in love with a Trojan princess, much to the displeasure of the god Apollo. The Greek hero was only vulnerable to a wound on his heel and so he had been unbeatable in battle. As a god, Apollo knew that weakness and told the Trojan prince Paris who then shot Achilles in his heel with a poison arrow, killing him. The Greek warrior Ajax rescued Achilles body but Achilles' famous armor was given to Ulysses instead. Out of bitterness and humiliation, Ajax killed himself. Out of pity for Ajax, Apollo caused a purple flower to grow from the ground that was stained with Ajax's blood. That flower, the bell-shaped grape hyacinth, is very common in Levant stretching from Greece to the Holy Land. 


The iris is said to have its origins on Mt. Olympus, home to the gods of ancient Greece. The goddess Juno had a maid-in-waiting with whom she was greatly pleased. She was the beautiful Iris who dressed in brilliant hues and had a rainbow for a scarf. Iris could stretch her scarf, arching it from Mt. Olympus to earth, and thus became a messenger for the other gods. Iris was able to use her rainbow scarf to descend to the underworld and deliver a message for Juno. As a reward Juno caused flowers, each being a color from Iris' rainbow, to grow around the world. Juno named the flower Iris in honor of the messenger. British legends of iris say the pixies of Devonshire would hide under iris blooms, for the large flower would hide them from the view of mortals. The petals of iris, according to another Devonshire account, were fashioned by fairies into their clothing. 


Gardens across the South will soon be filled with beautiful multicolored zinnias. They are a favorite plant for cutting gardens and butterfly gardens alike. Few people realize its history, a fascinating story that traces American history. In its native form in Mexico and the arid Southwest, it was a weedy plant with a small single flower usually with yellow, orange or pale lilac petals or rays. 


In prehistoric times there are associations of the zinnia with the Navajo, Apache, Aztec and other Indians of the Southwest. Its flower was used to make a yellow dye and was an ingredient in red body paint. A decoction of the flower was sometimes used in the treatment of stomach and throat ailments. 


The first Europeans to observe the zinnias were the Spanish in Mexico in the 1520s. They did not consider it an attractive flower and called it "mal de ojos" or "sickness of the eye." During the early 1700s interest in zinnias increased in Europe, and in 1759 it was renamed "zinnia" to honor German professor of botany and medicine Johann Zinn. Interest in zinnias continued to increase across Europe and by the 1850s, both single and double zinnias of many colors were popular in France. 


In the 1860s colorful zinnias spread across America. Because the center of the zinnia appeared to be a new flower blooming within an older one, it became popular in Victorian America to refer to zinnias as "Youth and Old Age." The zinnia as we know it today is the result of four centuries of cultivation and breeding. They are a well bred flower. 


In early Columbus flower gardens were popular and by the 1830s, newspaper ads for the sale of houses often refer to their gardens. Interestingly many of the garden seeds sold at that time in Columbus were from the United Society of Quakers in Logan County, Kentucky. That was the Shaker community of South Union but that will be another story. 


Rufus Ward is a local historian.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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