Saturday, July 4, 2009

Meanings of flower names

Throughout history and in cultures around the world, mankind has held a deep connection with flowers. From the smallest blossoms emerging from the melting snow, marking the end of winter, to elaborate bouquets given as gestures of love, flowers are unmatched in their ability to please the senses and delight the soul.

They have also been infused with symbolism that transcends their colorful blooms. A poetic regard for flowers is evident even in Neanderthal culture with the discovery of burial sites containing Hollyhocks -- an indication that the Neanderthals too considered it as "holy"' as its name also suggests today.

The names we give to flowers reflect a loftier esteem than the ones we give to, say, vegetables. Broccoli, for example, derives its unappetizing moniker from the Italian brocco, meaning simply a shoot or stalk -- in line with the opinions of countless picky eaters. But the names given to flowers often denote their benefit to the spirit.

Like many words in our language, many of the names of flowers hold clues about their history and relationship to us. The daisy, for example, known for its small yellow blossoms, is quite common throughout the world. Daisies are unique in that they close their golden petals during the night and keep them shut, as if in sleep, until the morning. This peculiar characteristic earned this little flower the name 'day's eye' from speakers of Old English. Eventually, that name was compounded into the word daisy.

Dandelions also derive their name from their characteristically numerous thick and slender yellow petals. It is not so strange for an imaginative observer to equate the dandelion's coarse petals to rows of teeth on a well-fanged beast. This comparison explains its French origin dent de lion, or in English "teeth of a lion."

Some flowers, on the other hand, were named not from their appearance alone, but for their associations with mythology. The iris, a flower which appears in a wide variety of colors, shares its name with the Greek goddess who unified heaven and earth. Aptly, she was personified by the rainbow.

The narcissus flower, too, is said to have sprouted upon the death of its mythological namesake, though there is no evidence that the flower is as self-absorbed. The Virgin Mary also has left her mark on floral taxonomy with the marigold, or Mary's gold. According to Flemish tradition, the flower sprouted from her tears.

Still, other flowers' names offer some insight into their utility in the past. The sweet, aromatic lavender was used to add a pleasant scent to recently washed clothes and to perfume bathwater -- as evidenced by its association with the Latin lavare, meaning "to wash." Calluna, the flowering shrub also known as heather, seems to have been appreciated not so much for its beauty as its handiness as a broom. Its name originated from the Greek word meaning "to sweep."

The Pansy blossom in late summer begins to droop. The flower's name is derived from the French pensée, or "thought" -- the source for the word pensive.

Carnations are also appreciated for their human qualities. Their soft pink petals are likened to the hue of skin, sharing its meaning closely with the word incarnation, "to be made flesh." There are early writings, though, that refer to this flower as coronation, which some scholars believe is an allusion to its use as a garland in Greek tradition.

Flowers are so universal in their appeal that nearly every culture names their children after them. From Ambuj (Indian for lotus) to Zara (Arabic for a blossom), floral names are timeless in their popularity. While millions of people around the world share their names with flowers, the opposite is also true. The Zinnia and Dahlia flowers, for example, can thank the 18th century botanists Johann Zinn and Anders Dahl, respectively, for their names.

Ultimately, the names assigned to flowers reflect less the flowers themselves than our longstanding relationship of love and esteem for them. A rose by any other name might still smell as sweet -- but a flower's name and the story behind it are deeply meaningful, human stories. They are our contribution to one of nature's most cherished creations.

No comments: