Friday 15 March 2024

Stories in Flowers by Caroline K. Mackenzie

Spring is on its way. It has been a long winter (or, at least, it feels that way) and the bursting of buds and arrival of flowers bring welcome signs of new life. In a former History Girls Blog, I wrote about Autumn: a celebration of nature’s golden season but, this year especially, I feel Spring deserves its own celebration. As each new flower appears, I have been delving into the stories behind the species and their names. Here are a few of my favourites:


‘Brother, joy to you! I’ve brought some snowdrops; only just a few, …Cheerful and hopeful in the frosty dew’. Extract from 'The Months’ by Christina Rossetti. 

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Snowdrops are seen as bringers of cheer and joy, given they are one of the first flowers to appear after winter. They may originally have been brought to Britain by monks in the fifteenth century (although the sixteenth century is usually cited as the earliest date). Frequently they are found in monastery gardens and churchyards and have been associated with the Christian celebration of Candlemas Day (2nd February), which gave them the name ‘Candlemas Bells’.

Their Latin name is ‘Galanthus’ which derives from Ancient Greek, meaning milk-flower. The common snowdrop’s name ‘Galanthus Nivalis’ ('nivalis' is Latin for ‘snowy’) alludes to its ability to thrive even in snowy conditions, its pendent blooms nodding gracefully above a blanket of white. An added bonus of this particular variety is its honeyed scent. 

Although we usually associate snowdrops with hope, there was a time when it was thought that to see a single snowdrop was a sign of imminent death. It was even considered bad luck to take a snowdrop inside one’s home.

Snowdrops have been used to treat headaches and other pains and, in modern medicine, an ingredient from snowdrops is being used in a treatment for dementia.

During the Second World War, British citizens nicknamed American soldiers ‘snowdrops’ due to their green uniforms with a white cap or helmet.


© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

After the snowdrop, next appears the Narcissus, commonly known as the Daffodil. One of the best loved stories of the character Narcissus is told by the Roman poet, Ovid, in his 'Metamorphoses'. Narcissus is a beautiful young man who rejected the love of many admirers, male and female. One of those scorned hopefuls prayed that Narcissus himself might suffer unrequited love. The goddess Nemesis heard his prayer. One day, while out hunting, the handsome Narcissus lay down to relax on a grassy bank next to a clear spring. On noticing his own reflection in the water he mistakenly believes he has happened upon another beautiful youth. He smiles. The youth smiles back. He waves. The beautiful boy waves back. Narcissus is falling head over heels. But he soon becomes frustrated:

‘My love desires to be embraced for whenever I lean forward to kiss the clear waters he lifts up his face to mine and strives to reach me.’

Narcissus beats his chest with his fist, turning his milk-white skin crimson (‘like apples tinted both white and red’), and is dismayed to see that his beloved likewise appears battered and bruised. The torment continues until eventually Narcissus dies, consumed by his grief. Mysteriously, when his sisters prepare his funeral pyre, ‘The body was not to be found – only a flower with a trumpet of gold and pale white petals’.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Narcissus achieved immortality through his metamorphosis, living on through the ubiquitous daffodils springing up in March bringing cheer and colour. Perhaps less cheerfully, his legacy has also been left in the term ‘Narcissism’.


When the daffodils have finished, we can look forward to the blooms of Fritillaries. These were introduced into England in the seventeenth century by Huguenots, French protestants, fleeing from persecution by the Catholic tyranny. Hence, Fritillaries have long been seen to symbolise persecution. Their pendulous solitary flower perhaps reinforces this meaning.

The flowers are commonly known as ‘Snake’s head’ due to the scaly pattern on them resembling a snake’s skin. 

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Another explanation is that the name derives from the Latin word ‘Fritillus’ meaning a dice box. The connection seems to be that games of dice can be played on a chess board, which the markings on the flowers resemble. 


In the Latin poem the ‘Aeneid’ (Virgil’s epic celebrating the founding of Rome), the climax describes fierce battles fought between the two sides led by the hero Aeneas and his great enemy, Turnus. The battlefield is described as being smattered with a ‘dew’ of blood. Commentators have noted the highly poetic use of ‘ros’ (dew) here. In another of Virgil’s poems, the 'Georgics' (a celebration of all things rustic), he uses ‘ros’ simply to mean rosemary, the full Latin name for which is ‘ros marinus’ (dew of the sea). Rosemary is thought to represent remembrance and perhaps Virgil had this symbolism in mind in his description of the victims on the battlefield whose lives were sacrificed as part of the destiny of the founding of Rome. 

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The symbol of everlasting memories also explains why in Victorian times brides included rosemary in their wedding ceremonies - it demonstrated they were bringing fond memories of their former home into their new, marital home. Some brides today still include it in their bouquet to represent love and memories (both those to cherish from the past and those to come in the future).

Rosemary is a firm favourite in kitchen gardens, with purple flowers to add colour to the wonderful scent.


© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Colours are the basis of the story behind the beautiful Iris. Iris was the messenger of the Greek gods. When she flew down from Mount Olympus to deliver messages to the mortals, she would leave a rainbow in her trail. The colours of irises are as varied as the colours of the rainbow. A devilish red known as Lucifer and vibrant orange are just two of the colours found in Crocosmia, which are in the same botanical family as Iris, the latter shown perhaps at its best in a striking purple.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The kings of France used the iris in their royal emblem – we know it as the Fleur de Lis.

Water lily

France also leads us to our next flower, the water lily, magnificently celebrated by the French impressionist Monet whose beloved water lilies in his garden at Giverny inspired him time and time again.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

They take their name, ‘Nymphaea’, from Greek mythology, where Nymphs (Nymphai) were minor goddesses or spirits of nature, many of whom were associated with springs and fountains. Water lilies were said to be found growing where nymphs used to play. 


Finally, a brief mention of a flower to look forward to in Summer. Foxgloves’ flowers stand tall, as if pointing upwards, and it is easy to see why their shape is described in their Latin name ‘Digitalis’ (like a finger).

© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

They have beautiful bells in pinks and whites but, a note of caution: the freckles in the bells have been said to be the fingerprints of elves, placed there as a warning that the plant is highly poisonous.

These are just a few of the stories which flowers and plants have to tell. Names, symbolism, uses and superstitions have evolved throughout history, culminating in a true garden of delights. I do hope you enjoy all the flowers which you see in Spring, whether in a garden, park, or simply by the roadside.

Post Script

The date of this blog coincides with the release of a video I recorded for Bloomsbury Academic as part of their campaign Where Can Classics Take You? The theme was what I love most about Classics and how the study of Latin and Greek can lead to so many fascinating places. ‘Mea culpa’: I forgot to mention one place where Latin, Greek and Classical mythology are alive and growing – the garden.

Watch the videos here: Where Can Classics Take You?


Aeneid (Virgil: Edited with notes by R. Deryck Williams)

A Latin Dictionary (Lewis and Short)

Cambridge Latin Anthology (Ashley Carter and Phillip Parr)

Cambridge Greek Lexicon (J. Diggle et al.)

Complete Language of Flowers (Sheila Pickles)

Metamorphoses (Ovid: Translated by David Raeburn)

RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (Christopher Brickell)

RHS Latin for Gardeners (Lorraine Harrison)

Who’s Who in the Ancient World (Betty Radice)

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

A lovely piece - thank you.