Thursday, March 13, 2008

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

A couple of seed catalogs have arrived in the mail, signifying that even though we still have a couple of feet of snow covering the lawn here in northern Michigan, spring is not impossibly far away. That turned my thoughts to the names of blooming trees and flowers, many of which are poems on a stalk.

➢ ACACIA: the OED says that it may come from a Greek word meaning “pointed,” in reference to its thorns. A web site featuring flower names
guesses that it comes from a Greek word meaning “not bad.” Faint praise, indeed.
➢ AMARYLLIS comes from a Greek word meaning to sparkle, and it was the stock name given to a rustic girl in some works of Theocritus, Ovid, and Virgil.
➢ ANEMONE comes from a Greek word meaning “daughter of the wind.”
➢ AZALEA comes from a Greek word meaning dry, either from the dry soil in which it flourishes, or from its dry brittle wood.
➢ CARNATION: Some say that it is a corruption of coronation because the flowers were sometimes used to make wreaths for the head. Others think that it refers to flesh color.
➢ CHRYSANTHEMUM comes from two Greek words that mean “gold flower.”
➢ DAISY, in Old English form, meant “day’s eye.” It closed at night and opened in the morning. It always struck me as a happy little flower, so I’m not sure why that flower was chosen for push up the daisies, under the daisies, and to turn your toes up to the daisies, all references to death.
➢ GLADIOLUS comes from a Latin word meaning little sword; it had sword-shaped leaves.
➢ HYACINTH has a somewhat obscure origin. The Greeks said it was the name of a youth loved by Apollo. When Hyacynthus was accidentally killed, flowers sprang up from his blood.
➢ IRIS was the Greek goddess who acted as the messenger of the gods, and her sign was the rainbow.
➢ LAVENDER: Some commentators think that it was related to a word that meant laundered linen, but the OED throws cold water on that theory. Another speculation is that it derived from a word that meant livid or bluish.
➢ MARIGOLD: Another word with an obscure origin. Literally, it means “Mary’s gold flower,” Mary being the Blessed Mother. German and Flemish legends speak of her cutting her finger by accident and staining the edges of the flower, or alternatively, spilling her tears on the flower.
➢ NARCISSUS was the gorgeous youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a fountain. When he pined away and died, a flower sprang up on the spot, according to Ovid.
➢ ORCHID means testicles in a wide range of languages: Greek, Avestan, Old Irish, Armenian, Albanian, and Lithuanian, so it stands up to close scrotiny. The image probably refers to the flower’s root, which features paired tubers.
➢ PEONY comes from Paean, the physician of the gods. [Immortals could catch a cold?] The lowercase paean is a song or chant properly directed to Apollo under the name Paean.
➢ POSY is a variant of poesy, a poetic composition, from the Greek verb “to construct.”
➢ RHODODENDRON: From two Greek words, it literally means rose tree.
➢ ROSEMARY comes from the Latin ros marinus, sea-dew, possibly because it grew near the sea.
➢ TULIP is related to the Persian word for turban, which the tulip was thought to resemble when open.

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