The scientific names of plants are often mysterious. There are some that describe a particular aspect of the plant itself, others that honor either the discoverer of the plant or some other worthy person, but some of the most interesting are rooted in mythology. Gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman religion are now memorialized in this way.
Take Agave. She was the mother of King Pentheus, who was trying to put a stop to the wine-induced raucous worship of the new god Bacchus. When Pentheus sought to stop the bacchanals in person, Agave-blinded by the god (as Thomas Bulfinch put it in his classic book on mythology)-perceived Pentheus as a huge wild boar and charged him. She and her sisters rent him limb from limb. She’s the fierce woman for which a fiercely-spined plant has been named.
The goddess Diana, as most know, was the huntress. She remained a virgin and her haughty manner and prowess with a bow are at the core of many tales. In Greek, her name is Artemis and she is also known as the moon goddess. It is probably this characteristic that is referred to in the plant name Artemisia. While many of the species of Artemisia are known as wormwood for their bitter qualities, many are also covered with fine down giving them a silvery cast-a semblance of moon glow.
Not all of the goddesses of myth were fierce. The Muses and the Graces are renowned for serving as the representatives of social enjoyment and art. One of them, Thalia, was the goddess of comedy. Her namesake plant has inflorescences that are held on long stems that sway in the breeze. Not so comical, but certainly graceful. Nerine was a daughter of Nereus and Doris; their daughters were the nymphs who swam in the Mediterranean Sea. Nerine, the genus, comprises small bulbous plants with very ornamental flower clusters. The connection? Lost in the mind of a botanist.
Gods, too, have lent their names to plants. The god of the west wind, Zephyr, was the lover of Flora (we know who she was) so it should be no surprise that his name has appeared to grace a flower. Zephyranthes is sometimes called fairy lily, but it may be as rain lily that we see the connection. Perhaps the rain lily, which blooms after a rain, was named for the wind that brought the storm. Lustful and murderous Ixion was lashed to a fiery wheel in the sky and consigned to turn endlessly (except when Orpheus played his lyre from time to time). The genus of South African bulbs that takes its name from him is Ixia. The blossoms open nearly flat (like a wheel?) only in the fullest sunny exposure.
Some of the Greek and Roman myths actually deal with gods and goddesses who either turn into a plant or create one somehow through their actions. Most people know the story of Narcissus. All the nymphs wanted him, especially Echo who was cursed to only repeat what was said to her, but he scorned them all. Only when he saw his own reflection in a still pool did he fall in love. He found he could not touch the object of his desire and wasted away, just looking at himself until he died. The nymphs prepared for his funeral, but his body was not to be found. Instead there was a flower blooming where he had once lain. Jealousy was also rampant among the gods and goddesses. Mintho was another nymph who was loved by Pluto, the god of the underworld. Persephone, whom Pluto had abducted into his underworld lair, became jealous and changed Mintho into a lowly, albeit fragrant, plant, the mint.
Daphne wanted to remain a virgin just like her role model Diana, but was pursued by Apollo. She fled through the forest, but as he closed in on her, she called on her father Perseus, the river god, and he slowly turned her into a laurel tree. Apollo was forced to give her up, but he revered her still and her leaves and branches were twined into wreaths of honor for heroes.
Apollo also liked the boys apparently, including Hyacinthus. While playing a game of quoits (sort of like horseshoes), Apollo beaned Hyacinthus and killed him. As he mourned his loss, a lily-like flower sprang from the blood that had fallen. The blood of another fallen god, Adonis, a lover of Aphrodite, created the scarlet anemone or windflower. Aphrodite’s tears, shed when he failed to heed her warning to be careful while hunting and was killed by a wild boar, mingled with his blood and flowers burst from the site. Just another myth that became reality.