Botanical nomenclature can seem like gibberish to those who aren’t in the know, but for those inducted into this language of botany and horticulture, a plant’s name can reveal a lot; from its origin (when the epithet carries the suffix “ensis”, “nus”, “inus” or “icus”) to its colour, habit or interesting features. But if it’s a good story you’re after, you can’t go past plants named for myths and legends, and the slopes of Mount Tomah are abound with plants carrying these intriguing etymologies.
The daffodil (Narcissus), a symbol of hope and one of the first flowers to show its face come spring, has quite a sad origin story. The Greek myth of Narcissus saw a young hunter becoming so obsessed with his own beauty that he fell in love with his reflection, glanced in a river. Unable to tear himself away from his image, Narcissus fell into the river and died.
The nodding of the daffodil’s head is said to be reminiscent of Narcissus as he stared relentlessly at his reflection. The word Narcissus comes from the Greek meaning “numbness” or “to numb”, perhaps referring to Narcissus’ inability to feel anything for anyone but himself.
These glorious South African plants known for their massive winter blooms, are named for Proteus, the Greek god of the sea. More specifically, Proteus is considered the god of “elusive sea change”, with the name referring to the massive diversity within the genus.
Gaius Mucius Scaevola a Roman assassin was captured by the Etruscan enemy while trying to assassinate the king. In order to prove his allegiance to Rome, and demonstrate what a formidable enemy he was, he burnt his right hand in a fire showing no sign of fear or pain. Scaevola means “left handed” in latin, and is an appropriate name for this beautiful fan shaped flower, the bloom being reminiscent of Scaevola’s single remaining hand.
Anemone x hybrida
Greek myth is rife with complicated love triangles and the tale of Anemone is no different. A beautiful nymph, Anemone fell in love with (the already married) god of the warm west wind, Zephyr. When Zephyr’s wife Chloris found out about Anemone’s love of her husband she turned her into a flower.
Clearly popular with the wind gods, Boreas the god of the cold north wind and the bringer of winter, also fell in love with Anemone but was rebuked by the flower. This is why every spring, Anemone opens her flowers waiting for Zephyr on warm, sunny days while Boreas puts paid to her petals with his cold, wintery wind at the end of the season.
With technology so close at hand, it’s no longer a challenge to find out the whos, whats, wheres and whys of a plant’s name, and offers you another layer of enjoyment when pondering a great bloom or glorious scent.
The Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah has a Living Collection of over 48,500 plants. See a snapshot of a day in the life of our dedicated Horticulture team in the video below.