Plants and Flowers in Myth, Legend and Song - The True Stories Behind 10 Famous Plants

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Introduction

Plants and flowers have featured prominently throughout the history of popular culture on Earth. One can go back to Biblical times and earlier to find references a-plenty to wild and cultivated plants. Since then, plants have been named in the titles of works of literature and art, mythology and music. They are also quoted in proverbs and popular phraseology, and they give their names to spices, medicines and oils. Many of these plants are familiar favourites, but others are rather more obscure. And, indeed some are far better known from their literary, mythological or linguistic associations than they are as the living, growing, natural plant.

On this page I present ten plants whose names are well known to most of us, and yet I wonder how many of us would recognise the actual plant or flower? Indeed how many of us would even appreciate that the plants or flowers exist in real life and are not just some figment of a creative writer's fervent imagination? So if you have ever wondered what Edelweiss looks like, or what Saffron really is, or whether Harry Potter's Mandrake plant exists beyond the pages of J.K Rowling's books, then this article is for you.

There are actually twelve species on this page - one common name is applied to two different species, and two others will be forever linked together by their Biblical context. One of the twelve is the tiny flower pictured above. Overlooked by almost everyone, it provides the title of one of the most famous stories of daring-do in the English language. But what is it? The answer is in the text.

N.B: Please note, all of my articles are best read on desktops and laptops

The well protected Rubus sanctus bush which still grows in St Catherine's Monastery in Egypt
The well protected Rubus sanctus bush which still grows in St Catherine's Monastery in Egypt | Source
Dictamnus albus bears spikes of attractive flowers, but is most famous for its ability to spontaneously combust
Dictamnus albus bears spikes of attractive flowers, but is most famous for its ability to spontaneously combust | Source

Burning Bush

We will start with a rather unfortunate example, because of all the plants and flowers presented here, this one is the most suspect as a true and genuine species. The story is well known to most, and indeed to almost all of the Christian faith. According to Exodus, the 2nd Book of the Old Testament in the Bible, Moses was confronted by a very odd sight whilst tending his father-in-law's sheep on Mount Horeb (often considered to be synonymous with Mount Sinai). He saw a bush which was enveloped in flames, and yet not consumed by the flames, and from out of this bush, God spoke to him and appointed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The mid 6th century Monastery of St Catherine stands at the foot of Mount Sinai on the reputed site of the bush and even today a very ancient bush - a large specimen of Rubus sanctus - grows here, believed by some to be the actual bush of the Biblical story.

However there is doubt as to whether the location of St Catherine's really matches the location of the Biblical event, and certainly there seems to be nothing about the Rubus bush, other than its age and its presence here, to link it to the event. But if not Rubus sanctus, is there any other plant which could provide the source for this mythology? In recent years many have speculated about possible rational explanations for the phenomenon described and most theories focus on Dictamnus albus - known as the 'gas plant' and indeed sometimes as 'Burning Bush'. This three foot tall plant which lives in the region has a very peculiar characteristic. It exudes volatile, flammable oils which on a windless day can be rapidly ignited with a flash by a single spark close to the plant - a flame which equally rapidly extinguishes. Indeed, this unusual phenomenon has been produced in the laboratory without a spark, and it is said that on especially hot days, the flash point temperature may occasionally be reached whereby heat from the sun itself is sufficient to cause the vapours to spontaneously combust - a burning bush in which the oils burn so quickly that the bush itself is not consumed by the flames. Dictamnus albus certainly cannot explain the 'Burning Bush' story in its entirety (not least because the flame dies down so rapidly), but knowledge of a plant which magically bursts into fire could well have presented a spectacle which became weaved into the Biblical story.

(N.B: To avoid confusion one should mention that several garden shrubs and herbs are commonly known as 'Burning Bush' including Euonymous alatus and Bassia scoparia. However, these are so named simply because of their fiery red autumn foliage - they have no connection to the Biblical story).

Moses and the Burning Bush, taken from the 1890 Holman Bible
Moses and the Burning Bush, taken from the 1890 Holman Bible | Source
The Edelweiss plant and flowers photographed in Switzerland
The Edelweiss plant and flowers photographed in Switzerland | Source
Close up view of the flower taken on The Raxalpe, a mountain in Austria
Close up view of the flower taken on The Raxalpe, a mountain in Austria | Source

This video shows the 'Sound of Music' film version of 'Edelweiss' here sung mainly by Christopher Plummer and with excepts from the film. (daultana on YouTube)

Edelweiss

'Edelweiss, edelweiss
Ev'ry morning you greet me
Small and white
Clean and bright
You look happy to meet me'


'Blossom of snow
May you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever'

If the true origins of the Burning Bush are in some doubt, there's no such problem with the Edelweiss. Some flowers have a legion of references in art, in popular literature, in film and in song - roses, lilies and daisies, to name but a few. There is however, one flower which is known by just one song in just one Hollywood musical, and yet it ranks as one of the most famous of all floral song references. 'Edelweiss' was composed for the production of 'The Sound of Music' first performed on stage in 1959, but of course today is best known for the 1965 film version which starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. The song was actually the last ever composed by the celebrated writing duo of Rogers and Hammerstein before the death in 1960 of Oscar Hammerstein, but it would become one of their best loved of all. In the film, 'Edelweiss' is sung twice, and in its second performance on a concert stage the flower becomes a poignant metaphor for Austrian patriotism in the face of Nazi oppression.

Edelweiss - Leontopodium alpinum - is a small alpine plant usually found 2000-3000m above sea level on limestone soils, where it grows about 20 cms (8 inches) high. Therefore, it is a true mountain plant, quite scarce in most parts, but found throughout the upland regions of Europe and Asia. The flowers are furry white star-shaped blooms, borne amidst hairy leaves during the summer months.

The selection of Edelweiss for the song was due to the affection and symbolism which this little flower holds throughout the region of the Alps. In past times, legend has it that Edelweiss would sometimes be collected by a young man for his true love, because to find such a remote and inaccessible flower required considerable athleticism and courage and so could be seen as a statement of worthiness and devotion. The flower has been eulogised by Emperors and used as a national emblem in both Austria and Switzerland. It was apparently loved by Adolf Hitler, but also by opponents of Nazism for whom it became a symbol of resistance. Extracts of the plant have also been used in traditional medicines for a variety of ailments, and today a depiction of the flower appears on the Austrian euro 2 cent coin. The very name itself, 'Edelweiss', translates from German as 'noble white', which refers of course to its colour but also to its important cultural status in the Alps.

Edelweiss growing in its wild mountainous location in Italy
Edelweiss growing in its wild mountainous location in Italy | Source
The fairy on a toadstool
The fairy on a toadstool | Source
And some fairies and other little folk even make the toadstool their home
And some fairies and other little folk even make the toadstool their home | Source
The real toadstool behind the fairy tale, photographed growing in a forest near Wellington, New Zealand
The real toadstool behind the fairy tale, photographed growing in a forest near Wellington, New Zealand | Source
Perhaps the most distinctive and beautiful of all mushrooms and toadstools
Perhaps the most distinctive and beautiful of all mushrooms and toadstools | Source

Fly Agaric

Many of the plants and flowers on this page are known to the general public by name, but not by their appearance. This one is different. This one is much more familiar by its appearance, and less familiar by its name. And when people recognise it they will most likely recognise it from their childhood days and from books and drawings of pixies, gnomes and fairies. Lots of these little fantasy beings seem to like perching on top of toadstools or sheltering under them, and some will even build their homes inside of them. But for some unaccountable reason, they nearly all seem to have the same taste in décor, favouring red ones with white spots.

But whether one believes in fairies or not, one can certainly believe in the toadstool or mushroom which draws them like flies to a honey pot. The Fly Agaric is absolutely a genuine species. (Strictly speaking it should be pointed out that nowadays most authorities accord the fungi their own kingdom separate to plants as they are so distinct in their form. For the purposes of this article however, we will still consider them as plants).

The Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is found quite commonly throughout the temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere, and the species has also been carried unintentionally to some Southern hemisphere nations where it now grows prolifically. It tends to be a woodland species, associated with particular kinds of tree - notably birch, and also pines and other conifers. The fruiting body of the toadstool grows about 18 cm (7 inches) tall, and the 15 cm (6 inch) diameter cap has white gills on the underside of the distinctive spotted scarlet or orange-red cap. There are also rarer colour varieties in which yellow or brownish tints predominate.

Is it poisonous? Yes it is, albeit not as deadly as some. The toxic symptoms include sweat-inducing fevers and excessive salivation, but death is quite rare, and usually only results from the consumption of quite large quantities. Indeed the fungus has even been routinely eaten in some cultures, after boiling to remove some of the toxins. It has also been used recreationally, as chemicals within the fungus can have a mind altering, hallucinogenic effect. Not to be advised!

Thankfully this species is not yet endangered, and encountering the Fly Agaric toadstool whilst walking in the woods, lends a certain 'fairy-tale' magic to the setting, as memories of all those tales from childhood come flooding back.

A colourful group of fly agarics in a wood in Southern England
A colourful group of fly agarics in a wood in Southern England | Source
Frankincense
Frankincense | Source
Myrrh
Myrrh | Source
Boswellia sacra in Oman - the tree which produces frankincense
Boswellia sacra in Oman - the tree which produces frankincense | Source
Commiphora myrrha,  the tree which produces myrrh
Commiphora myrrha, the tree which produces myrrh | Source

Frankincense and Myrrh

We return to the Biblical theme here for two of the most familiar terms in the Gospels, yet two of the least understood. The three wise men were said to have brought three gifts to celebrate the birth of Jesus - Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. We can all appreciate the virtues of Gold, but how many of us would want to be given Frankincense and Myrrh? How many of us would even know what they were, if they came gift wrapped and handed to us on our birthdays?

Both Frankincense and Myrrh are substances obtained from tree sap, by slicing the bark so that the sap flows free, in a similar way to rubber latex. This sap is then allowed to dry before it is collected some weeks later. Uses of both the resins produced have been many and varied - as a fragrant perfume, in ceremonies which include animal sacrifice and embalming, and in medicines against leprosy, plague, diarrhoea and for numerous other ailments, as well as in the healing of wounds. Peak production seems to have been in the first century AD, when their properties were known throughout the civilised world. Both, indeed, were among the most prized and practical substances to be traded and exported from the region of the Arabian Peninsula. They were also very expensive - hence their role as 'gifts'. The high cost was partly due to the fact that these trees tend to grow in very remote areas, and partly because the process of extraction and preparation was very time consuming. Today of course, many of those original values of Frankincense and Myrrh have gone, but a commercial market still exists.

Frankincense is a white resin which is extracted from Boswellia trees - notably B.sacra, a 4.5 m (15 ft) tree with papery bark, sparse foliage and white flowers, found over a wide region of North Africa and the Middle East. In past centuries, the Shisr Oasis in South Oman in particular is recorded as having exported huge quantities of the resin to Asia as far east as China. Today, Frankincense is still burned as incense in prayer, and about 5 million kilograms (5,000 tons) is exported annually to China to be used in medicines and perfumes. Peak commercial culture today is in Ethiopia, and other major exporters include Oman, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. But the harvest in modern times has been threatened by three problems - excessive exploitation, changes in land use to grow more profitable cotton or sesame crops, and a lethal pest beetle which attacks vulnerable trees.

Myrrh is a reddish resin taken from Commiphora trees - notably C.myrrha, a 3 m (9 ft) tree, found in the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. Like the Frankincense Tree, Commiphora has sparse green leaves borne on spiny branches. In ancient times, Myrrh was particularly used in burial rituals in addition to its other values. Today Myrrh is still harvested in countries like Somalia and exported to China or Europe, to be used in mouthwashes and in preparations for ulcers, catarrh and other conditions.

Frankincense flowers
Frankincense flowers | Source
London Pride
London Pride | Source

This is a very old version of 'London pride' by Donald Peers, but it seems appropriate as it features images of London in the blitz, and the little flower which had inspired this song (MatthewN32 on YouTube)

London Pride

'London Pride' is a phrase which is quite familiar in Britain and in other parts of the English speaking world - a phrase with a multiplicity of usages. In the creative world, it has been the title of a novel, an early silent cinema film, a dance, and a dance troupe, and most famously as the title of a song by Noel Coward:

'London Pride has been handed down to us,

London Pride is a flower that's free.

London Pride means our own dear town to us,

And our pride it forever will be.'

Away from the artistic world, London Pride is also a brand of beer, and the name has been given to at least two oil tankers and one sightseeing tour operator. And in recent times it has become best known as the title of an annual gay street parade - indeed, type 'London Pride' into Wikimedia Commons Images and you'll scarcely see a flower in sight unless it's worn as part of the rather odd clothing which goes with such parades!

At the time of writing this article, a quick search of 'London Pride' on the first three pages of Google revealed 10 mentions of the beer, 9 references to the gay parade, 3 song links and 2 for the dance. Other references included the tour company and a football fan site. Only one mention of the plant which is the focus of this page, was made.

Nonetheless the oldest and original usage of the phrase is as the common name of the small flower Saxifraga x urbium, a hybrid plant known since the 17th century, and which is believed to derive from a cross between Saxifraga umbrosa from the Pyrennes, and Saxifraga spathularis from Ireland. The plant is characteristically quick to colonise new habitats and the inspiration for the Noel Coward song is thought to be the Second World War (the song was written in 1941) when its resilience in thriving in bombed out city centres was likened to the resilience of the people of London when they withstood the bombs and carried on regardless.

The fleshy leaves of London Pride
The fleshy leaves of London Pride | Source
An ancient scupture of Tutankamun found in his tomb in Egypt. The head stands in a vase ornamented with the design of the Blue Lotus flower
An ancient scupture of Tutankamun found in his tomb in Egypt. The head stands in a vase ornamented with the design of the Blue Lotus flower | Source
 Nymphaea caerulea, also known as the Blue Lotus of Egypt
Nymphaea caerulea, also known as the Blue Lotus of Egypt | Source
The Hindu goddess Lakshmi holding two Sacred Lotus blossoms and standing on a floating Lotus Flower
The Hindu goddess Lakshmi holding two Sacred Lotus blossoms and standing on a floating Lotus Flower | Source
Nelumbo nucifera, also known as the Sacred Lotus flower of Asia
Nelumbo nucifera, also known as the Sacred Lotus flower of Asia | Source
Lotus petals in Tamil Nadu, India
Lotus petals in Tamil Nadu, India | Source

Lotus Flower

Lotus is another floral name with a multiplicity of cultural and literary references, although unlike London Pride, the references to the Lotus Flower are steeped in ancient legend and mythology.

In ancient Egypt, long before the time when the civilisation became united under one pharaoh, the region of the Nile was divided into two kingdoms - the Upper and the Lower Nile. Each had their own sacred symbol. The Lower Nile Kingdom in the region near the delta honoured papyrus grass, but in the Upper Nile, the symbol of greatest reverence was the Lotus bloom. Why? One element of Egyptian spiritual belief was the concept of continuous birth, death and rebirth, symbolised each day by the Sun rising over the Nile from the east and disappearing in the west, and also by the opening of the Lotus Flower petals each morning and their closing in the evening. The perfume of the flower is also said to have been associated with divinity.

Much further east, the quite separate cultures and religions of Hinduism and Buddhism were also developing deep associations with the bloom of the water-living Lotus which continue to this day. Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu faith are often depicted seated or standing on great Lotus blossoms, or holding them in their hands. But the symbolism is quite different to ancient Egypt. Whereas the Egyptians saw meaning in the rebirth and death of the Lotus flower, opening and closing each day, the Hindus and Buddhists associated the Lotus with purity of body or mind, and the development of great beauty (physical or spiritual). The metaphor derives from the way a beautiful flower emerges from the ugly mud at the bottom of a pond. Recently the Bahai faith chose the Lotus Flower for the design of their temple in New Delhi. And according to Confuscan writer Zhou Dunyi:

'I love the lotus because while growing from mud, it is unstained'

Clearly the Lotus has been a flower of very great significance to many of the world's ancient civilisations and today it remains a potently spiritual plant. Unfortunately, however, the picture is not quite so straightforward as this. It transpires we are not talking about one species, but two.

The Lotus of ancient Egypt is the Blue Lotus or Sacred Blue Lily, which has the Latin name, Nymphaea caerulea. It is a true species of water lily. The leaves of this plant expand up to 40 cm (16") in diameter, whilst the flower may measure as much as 15 cm (6") in diameter. Today the species is found in East Africa and parts of Asia to which it may have been introduced.

Nelumbo nucifera, known as the Indian or Sacred Lotus Flower is superficially quite similar, though not very closely related. Like the Blue Lotus, the leaves extend on long stalks to break the surface of the water or to float like large green pads on the water surface. Despite other similarities, the central organs are quite different. The plant is also rather larger than the Blue Lotus - leaves may be up to 60 cm (24") in diameter, and the pinkish petals of the beautiful flower may span 20 cm (8"). This species is native to tropical Asia and Australasia, and it is the national flower of both India and Vietnam. This is the flower which many will encounter in religious and festive ceremonies throughout Southern Asia.

The beautiful Blue Lotus Flower
The beautiful Blue Lotus Flower | Source
The 'human' roots of Mandrake depicted in a 7th century herbal - the 'Naples Dioscurides' - a treatise of plants and their varied medicinal uses
The 'human' roots of Mandrake depicted in a 7th century herbal - the 'Naples Dioscurides' - a treatise of plants and their varied medicinal uses | Source
Illustration in a 15th century handbook on health and medicine. Note the roots depicted as a human torso, and the dog employed to safely unearth the plant (see text for a description of this)
Illustration in a 15th century handbook on health and medicine. Note the roots depicted as a human torso, and the dog employed to safely unearth the plant (see text for a description of this) | Source
The wrinkled leaves and the flowers of Mandragora officinarum
The wrinkled leaves and the flowers of Mandragora officinarum | Source

Mandrake

For many of us, the Mandrake will be a familiar, ominously magical plant with human baby shaped roots, best known because of its prominence in those modern annals of youthful wizardry - the 'Harry Potter' series of books and movies. Who can forget the moment when the students have to pull a screaming Mandrake out of the soil and then re-pot it? In 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets', the Mandrake plant is used in magic antidotes to cure petrification (being turned to stone) or for the restoration of a cursed person to their original state. Despite these good points the Mandrake screams can prove fatal.

That's the ficticious version. Not so well known is that Mandrake is a real plant, which was steeped in myth and legend long before the hero of J.K Rowling's books. Mandragora officianarum originally comes from Mediterranean regions, and is a low growing plant with large expansive leaves up to 40 cm (16") in length, radiating out from the short central stem. Large purple white flowers are borne in spring, and these give rise to orange-red fruits. Underground a large, parsnip-like root may extend for a metre or more, firmly anchoring the plant to the ground.

So why does this very real species feature so heavily in our mythology? Two reasons. Firstly, the very oddly shaped and strangely divided roots of the Mandrake can superficially resemble a human figure with legs and arms. Secondly, the Mandrake plant contains many narcotic and hallucinogenic chemicals used in the past for anaesthesia and for pain relief. And liquid from the roots was applied to relieve melancholy, ulcers, convulsions and rheumatism. Less credibly, dried roots were used to ward off evil spirits. A note in the 5th Century 'Herbarium of Apuleius says:

'For witlessness, that is devil sickness or demoniacal possession, take from the body of this said wort mandrake by the weight of three pennies, administer to drink in warm water as he may find most convenient - soon he will be healed.'

These attributes of Mandrake are reflected in the various names which have been given to the plant. One common name was 'Satan's Apple'. Another, from Jewish tradition, was 'Love Plant' (due to a belief that it aided in conception, as mentioned in Genesis chapter 30: verses 14-17). In Persia it was called the 'Man-like Plant', while 'Mandragora' may come from the Latinised Sanskrit for 'sleep-inducing plant'.

The beneficial herbal uses of Mandrake are acknowledged widely in history, albeit sometimes with fanciful exaggeration. But what about the idea that the Mandrake cries like a baby when pulled from the ground? That ancient belief which must relate to the shape of the roots once led to special precautions being employed when harvesting the crop. Jewish historian Josephus in the 1st Century AD states:

'A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled.'

This myth which could easily have been disproved, may have been deliberately generated to protect the plant from over collection. Informing peasant farmers that Mandrakes were possessed of a shrieking demon might have prevented some from digging it up. But myths have a tendency to persist, and this one was still prevalent in the Middle Ages. In 1518, Machiavelli wrote a play called 'Mandragola' in which a Mandrake love potion plays a central role. And Shakespeare no less, mentions it four times, including a line by Juliet in Act 3 Scene IV of 'Romeo and Juliet' which refers to 'shrieks like mandrakes' torn out of the earth'.

But a more level-headed approach was also now gaining ground, first recorded in the 'Grete Herball' of 1526. And 'Gerard's Herbal' in 1597 carried this dismissive comment:

'There have been many ridiculous tales brought up of this plant, whether of old wives or runnegate surgeons or phisick mongers, I know not, all which dreames and old wives tales you shall from henceforth cast out your bookes of memorie.'

Today the mythology should be seen for what it is. And health benefits have also largely been dropped from Western medicine, though extracts may still be used in fringe practices like homeopathy.

Unripe fruits nestle amongst the leaves of Mandrake - a plant of greater mythology than almost any other - except maybe the Mayflower featured below
Unripe fruits nestle amongst the leaves of Mandrake - a plant of greater mythology than almost any other - except maybe the Mayflower featured below | Source
The hawthorn tree, smothered in May blossom, photographed in Yorkshire, in North East England
The hawthorn tree, smothered in May blossom, photographed in Yorkshire, in North East England | Source
One of the prettiest of English trees
One of the prettiest of English trees | Source

Mayflower

The Mayflower is a blossom which has innumerable references through history, most notably in stories from pagan folklore, and as the name of one of the most famous ships in history. But what is a Mayflower?

The tree which bears the Mayflower is itself sometimes called the 'May Tree', or sometimes 'Whitethorn'. But the most universally accepted name is undoubtedly 'Hawthorn'. It belongs to the genus Crategus, and most typically it is the Common Hawthorn, C.monogyna, which is associated with May blossom.

The Common Hawthorn is a small, sharply thorned, bushy tree, usually about 5 to 15 m (15 to 50 ft) tall. It is one of the most familiar of all in the landscape of the British Isles, and has been for thousands of years. It is also one of the prettiest because each year, typically in the month which gives the flowers their name, the hawthorn is smothered in white blossoms - the mayflowers. Indeed it was once a pagan folk tradition on 1st May to cut flowering branches for May Day celebrations as a symbol of fertility and regrowth.

As a distinctive tree well known to our Celtic ancestors, hawthorns became more steeped in mythology than any other tree, and were once strongly identified as the haunt of fairies and magical folk. In some places it was considered bad luck to disturb the tree. In others, it was considered a symbol of witchcraft. And the very spiny nature of the branches led to the hawthorn being regarded by some as the tree which supplied the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion. Mayflower has also had a benign lore associated with it; in ancient Greece, May was used in wedding ceremonies as a symbol of hope. Many other superstitions also existed in ancient Britain and across Europe, far too numerous to list here, but they can be found in the references below. And as well as this, the May blossom has led to one of the best known of all weather lore sayings:

'Ne'er cast a clout till May is out'

There have been various explanations for this ancient maxim, but contrary to popular belief, the saying certainly doesn't refer to the month or May. Rather, it is the May blossom, and according to most interpretations basically warns not to shed too much clothing until hawthorn is in full bloom, due to the unreliability of weather before this time.

Unsurprisingly, the name of 'Mayflower' - so much a part of history and legend - has been used many times during past centuries in the naming of towns, new buildings, and modes of transport such as steam locomotives. There was even a comic book superhero called 'Mayflower'. But most of all the name has been popularly applied to ships. In the time of King James I of England, there were at least 26 vessels registered with this name. And one of these ships which first appears in the records of the year 1609, spent many years as a humble trading ship doing nothing of any note, until in 1620 it was chosen to transport 102 pilgrims to the New World. In so doing, this particular 'Mayflower' achieved eternal fame. The pilgrims who came seeking religious freedom and self-determination have come to symbolise the core values of the America, and their first harvest is popularly regarded as the basis of American Thanksgiving celebrations.

Sadly, the significance of the 'Mayflower' name when applied to ships is unclear, though presumably the name of a tree steeped in sacred and superstitious mythology may have carried with it some symbolism of good fortune - Certainly some fishermen believed that possessing a thorn of the tree helped ensure a good catch at sea. Or maybe the simple beauty of the May in full blossom was enough to inspire the namers of ships? Perhaps we will never know, but although the most famous ship which bore its name is now long gone, the beauty of the Mayflower continues to grace the rural landscape of England, as it has done through countless generations.

May Flowers cover every branch of this hawthorn tree in Northern England
May Flowers cover every branch of this hawthorn tree in Northern England | Source
A Saffron farm in Bardaskan in Iran
A Saffron farm in Bardaskan in Iran | Source
The Saffron Crocus showing two of the all-important stigmas
The Saffron Crocus showing two of the all-important stigmas | Source

Saffron

Our next plant has long been known as a commercial plant species. But it is also a plant with strong associated mythology, and an aura of exoticism and luxury. The question is, just why is Saffron so regarded?

Saffron is - of all things - a crocus. But unlike the more familiar spring flowering crocuses, which we see in many gardens, the Saffron Crocus (Latin name Crocus sativus) blooms in the autumn. C.sativus is not an entirely natural plant, as it was first bred many thousands of years ago from a genuine wild species on the Mediterranean island of Crete. The flower is lilac in colour, with attractive deeper veining, but most significant and characteristic are three crimson stigmas, the female flower part, which are much more prominent than in other crocuses; it is for these stigmas that this crocus was selectively bred.

Ironically, although the stigmas are red, a carotinoid dye (crocin) which is extracted from them is a rich yellow-orange in colour, and it was this pigment which was the first important product of C.sativus. It was used to colour the clothing particularly of high status females, incl;uding high priestesses, in Bronze Age Minoan civilisations on Crete as long ago as 1500 BCE. The prized dye also had a sacred connotation in Asian regions for colouring the robes of Hindu divinities and Buddhist monks. But there were many other applications in the ancient world as well. Less recognised today is Saffron's use in herbal medicine, and yet records from as far afield as Egypt and China testify to many different treatments including those for gastrointestinal complaints and depression, as well as in sedatives, aphrodisiacs and perfumes. Alexander the Great used Saffron infusions as a healing agent for battle wounds. And Cleopatra supposedly added the extract to her baths! The third major value of Saffron is as a spice, and that is how it is most identified today notably in Middle Eastern, Indian and Mediterranean cuisines, for its seasoning, aroma and colouring.

Such a valued plant was sure to bring forth legends, notably in ancient Minoan and Greek culture. At least two myths to explain the crocus's origins, concerned a Greek youth called Krokos. One tells how in a sporting contest with the God Hermes, Krokos was accidentally wounded and killed, and where each drop of his blood soaked into the ground, a Saffron Flower grew with blood-red stigmas. Another myth had Krokos in a relationship with the nymph Smilax, and when both had died, the touching nature of his devotion to her led the Gods to transform him into the Saffron Crocus.

Since Greek times, the commercial value of Saffron has led to its cultivation and trade across the world. The expanding Roman Empire took the flower with them where ever they went, and Islamic influences would later breed new life into its cultivation and distribution - indeed today, Iran is responsible for 90% of all Saffron production. The bulbs spread to England too, and in the Middle Ages the village at the centre of its cultivation was christened Saffron Walden in celebration of the crop, and remains so-named to this day. Such was the crop's value that the theft of just one shipment even sparked a brief conflict known as the Saffron War, whilst adulteration of Saffron with inferior spices or pigments has often been a tempting prospect for unscrupulous traders - though in past ages this could even lead to the perpetrators being executed!

But why has such mythology and passion been associated with this plant? Well, the cultivated Saffron Crocus is sterile, so all propagation is vegetative, by division of the corms. The flowers only bloom for a few weeks, and each flower stigma has to be collected by hand. What's more, it takes more than 100,000 flowers just to extract one kilogram of Saffron. This labour intensive process means that Saffron was always a scarce commodity, and today it is the most expensive spice in the world, comparable in price per gram to Gold. Not bad, for a humble little crocus!

Saffron stigmas and the yellow-orange pigment
Saffron stigmas and the yellow-orange pigment | Source
The Scarlet Pimpernel
The Scarlet Pimpernel | Source
Close up of the flower
Close up of the flower | Source
The elusive Pimpernel - seek it out!
The elusive Pimpernel - seek it out! | Source

Scarlet Pimpernel

Like Edelweiss, the Scarlet Pimpernel is a flower name familiar from just one source, in this case one of the most famous novels of adventure written in the English language - a novel which includes a well known poem about the eponymous hero:

'We seek him here, we seek him there,

Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.

Is he in heaven? — Is he in hell?

That damned, elusive Pimpernel'

In the novel 'The Scarlet Pimpernel', published in 1905, Baroness Emma Orczy tells the tale of a seemingly dim and foppish English aristocrat called Sir Percy Blakeney - perhaps a most unlikely hero, but one who has an alter ego; he is a master of disguise, and a great swordsman who moves through France during the years of the French Revolution, daringly rescuing the nobility from the guillotine. The dual character of the mysterious stranger whose true identity is known to almost no one, is said to have inspired the later cult of masked superheros such as Batman, and most of all the character known as Zorro. But unlike Zorro, who left a slashed 'Z' as his calling card, Sir Percy always left a drawing to reveal his presence - a picture of a little red flower - the Scarlet Pimpernel

The Pimpernel is a pretty but rather inconspicuous flower of the English countryside, and sometimes a minor weed of English gardens, though it is a very cosmopolitan plant which has been introduced to temperate regions across the world. Each little flower is borne singly on creeping stems during the summer months, but only opens when the weather is sunny. The Latin name is Anagallis arvensis. In the text of the novel, the flower is described as:

'The name of a humble English wayside flower; but it is also the name chosen to hide the identity of the best and bravest man in all the world'

So why does Sir Percy Blakeney choose the Scarlet Pimpernel as his motif? The answer is not revealed in the text of Baroness Orzy's novel. Some have speculated that the flower's bright red colour is intended as a symbol of life to contrast with the blood which flows through revolutionary Paris - a symbol of death. However, a more complex metaphor may be favoured:

It is clear Orzy was firmly on the side of the nobility in her stories, but it seems she was more concerned with noble causes than noble birth or wealth. Arrogance and conceit in the nobility are undesirable qualities, whilst humility is admired. In public life Sir Percy is prepared to present himself as a weak and ineffectual fool, whilst in his undercover activities he masquerades as inconsequential beggars, peasants and old women. So perhaps the flower epitomises all of Sir Percy's best qualities: to do great deeds, this grand 'rose' of the English aristocracy is prepared to humble himself like the seemingly insignificant little weed - the 'Scarlet Pimpernel'.

'The Scarlet Pimpernel' was first published as a play, and then in novel form. And such was the popularity of the novel, translated into at least 16 languages, that many sequels followed. Since then the character has regularly been reprised in film both in Britain and America, and on television, in radio dramas, and even in a Broadway musical. If one also includes spin-off characters of heroes with alter egos, inspired by the Baroness Orzy original, the Scarlet Pimpernel seems set to remain forever a renowned icon of heroic fiction, and through him, the 'humble wayside flower' will continue to be known to millions who may never set eyes upon the real plant.

In close-up, this easily overlooked little flower is very attractive
In close-up, this easily overlooked little flower is very attractive | Source

Wikipedia

Wikipedia entries exist for all these plants, and these are worth reading

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I'd Love to Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun 37 comments

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Greensleeves Hubs 22 months ago from Essex, UK Author

FatBoyThin; Thanks Colin. I can personally vouch for both of these! I've grown Edelweiss in a rock garden - you can buy them in garden centres as alpine plants. As for the Scarlet Pimpernel, I occasionally see this growing wild in the garden! It's one 'weed' I would never throw out. :) Cheers, Alun


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FatBoyThin 22 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

Fascinating stuff - I always thought that Edelweiss and the Scarlet Pimpernel were made-up names. Just goes to show. Excellent Hub.


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Greensleeves Hubs 22 months ago from Essex, UK Author

Rota; Thanks very much. Glad to hear from you Rota - I should say I've been trying all day to comment on your Wollemi Pine hub, but strangely posts aren't being accepted there at the moment. I've written to the Technical Problem Forum about it, because there's 3 hubs I've tried commenting on today without success. Hopefully that problem will be rectified soon.

SandyMertens; Thank you Sandy. Appreciate your comment. Alun


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Rota 22 months ago

thoroughly fascinating! Loved the numerous well selected pictures.


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SandyMertens 24 months ago from Frozen Tundra

Very fascinating about these plants and the stories behind it.


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Greensleeves Hubs 24 months ago from Essex, UK Author

Lady Guinevere; Thanks so much. Relating plants, animals and historic events to those mentioned in religious texts or in the mythologies or legends of ancient cultures is fascinating. I'm so glad you liked this - particularly the sections on the Biblical burning bush, frankincense and myrrh.

Thank you very much Debra for the share on Facebook and the link to one of your hubs. I shall take a look in due course! Cheers, Alun :)


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Lady Guinevere 24 months ago from West Virginia

Great article and I like the Biblical aspects of these plants so I am going to share your hub on a FB Group that I admin for and also link it to one of my hubs that has herbs and stuff used in Biblical Times to cure the dirty water that people were baptised in.


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Greensleeves Hubs 24 months ago from Essex, UK Author

pstraubie48; Thank you very much Patricia. Glad you liked it and glad to have been able to supply some info on some plants which are little known outside of their literary or cultural connections. Very much appreciate the votes and shares. Alun :)


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pstraubie48 24 months ago from sunny Florida

What a beautiful array of lovelies. Flowers are one of nature's loveliest gifts. Many of these you shared I have never seen up close and personal.

This is well done...you filled in the great holes in my knowledge.

Voted up and shared

Angels are on the way to you ps


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thank you Jean. That is appreciated. Alun


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Jean Bakula 2 years ago from New Jersey

Really interesting piece, loaded with info and lots of pretty pictures!


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

jill of alltrades; Nice to hear from you. Thanks very much for that nice comment, and thanks also for the votes! Cheers Alun.


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jill of alltrades 2 years ago from Philippines

What a very well researched, useful and interesting hub! First time for me to see a frankincense flower. Thanks for sharing! Voted up!


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

D.A.L; Thank you very much Dave for your complimentary comment, particularly as it comes from one of HubPages foremost writers on nature and notably on flora. I much appreciate your message. Alun


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D.A.L. 2 years ago from Lancashire north west England

What a beautifully presented and informative hub, that can only enhance the knowledge of all who love flowers. The images compliment the educational text. Great hub, voted up, beautiful and interesting. Glad to have found this one.


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

tsmog; Thank you very much. I have discovered St. Catherine's Lace on the Internet - Eriogonum giganteum - named for the flower clusters which look like embroidered lace; a very attractive shrub from your part of the world.

I appreciate your words Tim.


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tsmog 2 years ago from Escondido, CA

Delightful. I pondered thoughts of many including a local native plant named 'St. Catherine's lace' and saffron buns in the Swedish culture. Very informative while captivated to know more with each passage. I ponder one flower mentioned for sure and its eventful voyage with life. Thank you for sharing both your earnest passion and the compassion surrounding these choices.

tim


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

pstraubie48; Thanks Patricia. I tried to select plants which many have heard of, but which few will have seen in real life. I was interesting for me, as I was learning as I wrote; up until about ten years ago I myself might have thought Lotus Flowers were mythological, and even up until researching this article I wasn't too sure about mandrakes! Appreciate the comment and shares. Alun


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Writer Fox; Thanks so much for that. Appreciate the comment and the votes!


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pstraubie48 2 years ago from sunny Florida

This is so full of info...I am going to bookmark it to return to for a review. The photos add so much. And you gave so much detail about many plants with which I am not familiar. The more I learn about plants the more I find I do not know.

I love growing new ones and learning as I do. Thanks for the great share.

Shared and pinned

Angels are on the way to you ps


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Writer Fox 2 years ago from the wadi near the little river

Amazing and comprehensive article! I enjoyed your research into these plant species and the presentation. Voted up!


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

DDE; That's a really lovely comment Devika. Thanks so much. Alun.

VVanNess; Thank you very much Victoria. Appreciated. Alun.


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DDE 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

An incredible hub!

You have made such a wonderful presentation and the photos are so lovely.

I enjoyed learning about all these plants and its uniqueness. Voted up, useful, interesting and beautiful.


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Bk42author; Thanks Brenda very much for your visit and nice words.

kerlund 74; Thank you kerlund. Re-the Lotus, it wasn't very many years ago that I saw the Asian Lotus for the first time and realised that this was a true species and not just some mythical flower. Both the Egyptian and the Asian Lotus Flowers are very beautiful. Thanks so much for the votes and shares.

rebeccamealey; Thanks Rebecca. Appreciate your visit and comment. Alun.


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VVanNess 2 years ago from Prescott Valley

What a beautiful article! I love the details you share about so many different types of plants. :)


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

MsDora; For me, a major appeal in writing the hub was to discover exactly which special aspect of each plant led to it becoming the subject of myths, stories or songs. Thanks so much again MsDora for your comment. Alun


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

AliciaC; Cheers for your comment Linda. And for the share. The hub did take a lot of work to write, but it was fun researching the plants. Thanks, Alun


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Bk42author 2 years ago from New York

Very interesting hub and beautiful pics you added! Thank you for sharing. Voted up!


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kerlund74 2 years ago from Sweden

Wonderful hub with so much interesting information. Well written and created. Lotus flower is one of my favorites, enjoyed that story the most and those wonderful images. Voted up, beautiful and shared.


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rebeccamealey 2 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

Very interesting and well put together Hub. I love flowers anyway, and I enjoyed the stories and photos .


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MsDora 2 years ago from The Caribbean

Excellent article! So many engaging facts about plants we like but know so little about. Thanks for such an interesting detailed lesson. Voted Up!


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AliciaC 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

This is a beautiful, engrossing and very enjoyable hub, Alun. I love all the details, stories and photos that you have included. Thank you for all the work that you did to create the article. I'll share this hub.


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

luvtoowrite: There is a video of someone igniting Dictamnus albus here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1sQmZ1EzhA

As you can see in the video, the flame very rapidly extinguishes, which is why I say in the text that it cannot explain the 'burning bush' story in its entirety, but certainly the ancients would have known of this plant which can spontaneously flare up.

As for Mandrake, I would LOVE to dig up one of these, if only to see the roots in real life, but I'm sure many would feel a bit queasy about doing so, especially if they've watched the Harry Potter movie! :-)

Thanks so much for your comments. Alun.


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luvtoowrite 2 years ago from Chicago, IL

Ooops, I meant to write, has an individual ever tested The Mandrake Plant/Root Theory without using a dog. I was assigned this topic for a project in school. Online, I tried to find a mandrake plant to purchase as a visual. The cheapest I could find was about $800.00 on eBay and I doubt it was real.


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luvtoowrite 2 years ago from Chicago, IL

Great topic for you to write an e-book about. I have never read about Dictamnus albus burning bush theory before. I wonder if there is a YouTube demonstrating the effects of spontaneous combustion involving this bush? I am sure it is a sight to see! Also, I have always been fascinated with the Mandrake Root and the legend surrounding the plant... "'A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled." Anyone care to test this theory? I double dog dare you (-: Cheers... Voting you up!


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Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Eddy; Thank you so much. It was enjoyable to research these plants which are so familiar in our cultural world, yet in some cases so obscure in the real world. It turned into a rather longer article than I'd intended, but hopefully those who happen upon it will find the stories of at least some of these plants intriguing. Your comment, votes and the share, are much appreciated. Cheers, Alun


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Eiddwen 2 years ago from Wales

A truly wonderful hub and your hard work has obviously paid off. Voting up, across and shared.

Eddy.

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