Aquilegia and other Greek flower myths

My aquilegias are looking amazing at the moment. I’ve encouraged them to seed everywhere they want, and the more I grow them the more I like them.  But why are they called aquilegia and why do my French friends and neighbours know them as ancolis, while my grandmother told me they were columbines or granny’s bonnets?

The naming of plants is a fascinating affair and you might be surprised to know that many of our common garden plants supposedly get their name from stories in classical mythology.  There are some  obvious ones  like Narcissus, Daphne and Iris, but there are plenty of others  including both Aquilegia and its French equivalent, ancolis.

But do you know the stories behind the names? Who did the naming?  Why? When?


The uncaptioned photos of aquilegias are mine

If you’ve got a bit of  knowledge of botanical history you’ll know that a large number of plant families were named by Carl Linnaeus but its pretty clear that he didn’t just  make them up because some were clearly well established centuries before his time.  I discovered some of the stories  behind them retold in The Retir’d Gardner by George London and Henry Wise,  the royal gardeners and owners of Brompton nursery, which was published in 1706.

Of course the book wasn’t their work  originally, but their translation of two recently published French gardening manuals,  Francois Gentil’s Le Jardinier Solitaire and the Le Jardinier Fleuriste et Historiographe of Louis Liger.  These books were, London and Wise  said, “Revis’d, with Several Alterations and Additions, Which Render It Proper for Our English Culture.”

To confuse matters a little,  London and Wise’s version was not the only one. Theirs was published under their names by Jacob Tonson , but another anonymous translation was published by Benjamin Tooke the same year under the title The Solitary or Carthusian Garden`r… and Compleat Florist.


The Retir’d Gardner has all the usual things you’d expect in a gardening  text. The first part was Gentil’s and covered practical matters such as soil preparation, and the  correct garden tools to use.  Liger’s book formed the second volume and covered the care of flowers, but crucially it also told the “history” or “fable” of many plant families.

Unfortunately I can’t find out where Liger found these stories, and they certainly don’t always agree with the “mainstream” versions such as Robert Graves retelling of the Greek myths, many of which derive from Ovid’s Metamorphoses,  with others from Hesiod’s Theogony, so if you have any ideas let me know.


Lets start with my aquilegias…

I love the opening couple of sentences of the story, which sums up the morality, or rather the lack of it,  of the entire Greek pantheon of gods.  “On a time when Jupiter had nothing to do, but to seek after a Mistress, he happen’d to be walking on the Caspian Sea-Shore where he met a Nymph, whose name was Moria, and whose Charms soon wounded the God to the Heart. ‘Twas enough for him to like a Nymph to enjoy her. His Desire and Possession soon followed each other.” Rather like a certain ex-president he exploited his position because “Moria having some inclination to be a Goddess, did whatever Jupiter would have her, and the Thunderer work’d his wicked Will with the Damsel”  And surprise surprise: “in due Course of Time the Nymph brought forth Ancolia.”

Equally inevitably “being the Daughter of a God, Ancolia grew as fair as a Goddess, and was courted by all the Youth of the Neighbourhood” and this include Ganymede, the mortal cupbearer to her father.  Ganymede was so handsome that Jupiter had fallen for him and sent his eagle down to earth to abduct him. But, although “the Youth was very Beautiful, Ancolia could see no Charms in him; all that the Gods had given him were thrown away on her.”   Indeed “The Virgin valuing herself upon her Divine Descent thought no mortal was worthy of her and nothing but a God would go down with her.”

The writer comments that although “she understood the Dignity of her Origin  to a nicety” instead of returning Ganymede’s affection she preferred  his Eagle, but unfortunately the bird “despised her Passion much as she despis’d Ganimede’s.”

Nevertheless  “she often visited the Cup-Bearer’s Apartment, [but] ’twas only to see her Dear Eagle. Things went on thus for some time, till at last Ganimede, not being able to bear the ill Usage he met with from Ancolia any longer, resolved to be revenged, and for that end hid his Rival, the Eagle, from the Virgin’s View.”

This probably had more effect than he expected because  Ancolia “pining for want of the sight of him, dy’d of Grief and Melancholly.”  Her father “Jupiter turned her into a Flower, and observing that as she blow’d in the Spring,  part of her leaves grew like the Beak of an Eagle (So firmly was the Image of that Bird fix’d in her Heart) he order’d that Ancolia should be call’d Aquilegia, from Aquila an Eagle, his own Imperial Bird.”

Some version of this story must have been around a long time because the French name “ancolis” is already in use by the late 15thc as you see from the detail from the painting by Jean Bourdichon in the Book of Hours that belonged to Anne of Brittany, Queen of France.


The common name of Columbine was certainly in use by the mid 14thc, deriving from Old French columbine or  Latin columbina,  literally “dove-like,” because the inverted flower supposedly resembles a cluster of five doves. It was used by John Gerard in his 1597 Herbal and he described parts of the flower as “standing upright in the shape of little birds”.

Elsewhere the Germans have as many as 30 different names for the plant including sugar-bells, and devils-bells while the French apparently nick-name it Our Lady’s Glove.

And here are a few more stories from those translations beginning with another case of scorned love.  It begins as all the Gods were  “keeping Holyday one day in Arcadia, in Honour of Pan… When, amidst the height of their Sports, they heard a Sound of Instruments that made most of the Company curious to know what it meant.”

It didn’t take them long to discover it was “Amaranthe , who came fitting in a Triumphal Chariot, attended by a great number of her Admirers.

“This Amaranthe was the Wonder of the Country; Helen [of Troy] had never half the Charms that shone in the Looks of this Young Lady … in short the sight of her charm’d all that beheld her.”

Now the amorous “Cupid had long been in Love with Amaranthe; and seeing her in this pompous Equipage, broke thro’ the Crowd, and coming up, made his Addreses to her”.  The attention must have turned her head because now having “grown proud of having a God so publickly avow his Passion,” Amaranthe  “no longer had any regard for the Sighs of her other Lovers.” That would have been unkind enough but she went one step too far and  “slighted in a scornful a manner the Flames of one Dorilas, who was Son of a Prince of Arcadia.”  He was not impressed and  “falling in Despair for her Cruelty, he resolv’d to be revenged.”

One  Night, “Dorilas chanc’d to meet Amaranthe in  a Garden, and gave her a Flower to smell, of so noxious a Scent that it made the Beauty of this Young Lady decay from day to day, insomuch that Cupid, who is an inconstant Deity, grew cold in his Passion for her.”

Amaranthe gradually “fell into such a Languishment, as soon brought her to the Grave. Then Cupid touch’d with some Remains of that Tenderness he had formerly had  for Amaranthe, chang’d her into the Flower that now bears her Name.”

I have no idea where Liger got this story from because the whole thing is completely at odds with  the usually accepted versions which argue that  Amaranthus was a prince who enjoyed hunting and who was loved by the goddess Artemis. His fault was that he claimed the bounty of the hunt was superior to that of the sea which Poseidon took as an insult and sent a tidal wave to wash him into the sea where he drowned . It was Artemis who  then turned him into an amaranth-flower, her sacred plant and which grew at at Amaranthos on the island of Euboia.

And now for another tragic ending to a love story…

“In former times there lived in Laconia a young Man, whose Name was Hyacinthus, and who was so very handsome, that he charm’d the very Gods. Apollo was mightily in love with him, and Zephyrus [the god of the winds] who saw him almost every day, was equally smitten with his Charms.”   You can sense trouble coming as  “these two Lovers vied with one another, which of ’em should shew most complaisance to Hyacinthus, and court more opportunities to please him. But whether it was that Apollo was handsomer than Zephyrus or that Apollo had some secret power over him, the young man gave precedence to Apollo.”

This “inflam’d Zephyrus’s jealousy and he resolv’d to be revenged.”  His way of doing so relied on his mastery of the winds, and “one day when ’twas very fair” he summonsed up  a gentle breeze to encourage Hyacinthus to take a walk. Whilst out the young man met Apollo “who never slipt the least opportunity of visiting and caressing him.” The god suggested a game of quoits and they started playing. This was Zephyrus’s opportunity. He waited until Apollo had thrown a quoit and then “blew hard upon it that he made it fall on Hyacinthus’s head, and have him such a blow that he died immediately.”  Apollo was distraught “and became melancholy upon it and cryed [that a god should be capable of crying!] and for a mark of his Love for Hyacinthus, finding that all his Godship could not recall his Life, made a Flower bearing his Name to spring from his Blood.”

For more on the real story of Hyacinths see this earlier post

But Zephyrus didnt just fancy young men. He also had an eye for the ladies and one day fell for the charms of “a pretty nymph” named Anemone, much to  “the indignation” of his wife Flora who was jealous of “the familiarity allowed to her husband”.  You can guess the rest: The goddess changed the nymph into the flower who “to this day does not blow but by the virtue of Zephyrus who ’tis said would never abandon her.”

As you must have gathered revenge and/or jealousy seems to be the most frequent excuses for these tragic transformations, but it doesn’t have to be sexual.   For example Did you know that there was once a fight between Hercules and Pluto, king of the underworld in which Hercules hit his adversary such a blow on the back with his club that Pluto was on the point  of death [if gods can die] when someone called “a certain old physician called Paeon who effected his cure.”  You’d have thought everyone would be grateful but the god of medicine Aesclepius who had trained Paeon was jealous of his success and “laid a snare for him in which he unhappily perished”.  Luckily Pluto was more generous and changed him into a flower rather unsurprisingly called Paeony.

Linnaeus was to honour Aesclepius later by naming a whole other family of plants after him, these are the milkweeds or Asclepias which have no connection to Greece at all since they are indigenous to North America. They have a few good garden varieties but most are considered rather weedy and are best known for being the food of the Monarch butterfly.

But the story doesn’t end there because Aesclepius was the son of Apollo  and he was such a good doctor that Pluto was not the only living being that he pulled back from the brink of death. Indeed he was so skilled that he  was even able to raise those who had just died.  This worried Jupiter since it would lead potentially to human overpopulation. So to stop that happening Jupiter threw  a thunderbolt and killed Aesclepius.   As you can imagine Apollo was not best pleased and in revenge he  killed the Cyclops who forged Jupiter’s thunderbolts. This turned into tit for tat and the king of the gods decided it was now Apollo’s turn to   be punished.   [Again this part of the story is not mainstream but comes from  Euripides‘ play Alcestis]

Apollo had an entourage of handsome young male attendants so Jupiter threw another  thunderbolt, at them.  It hit Phaeton, the son of the sun god,  and hit him so hard that he fell from the sky and  unfortunately  landed on another one of them, Aster, “who being overcharged with the blow, fell down dead upon the place.” And guess what: “Apollo, concerned at his Loss turn’d him into a flower call’d aster which signifies a Star, by reason of those Rays imprinted in it.”

Again  there are plenty of other versions of the story.  In the most common Phaeton begs to take control of the sun’s chariot for the day but cannot control it and causes chaos. Zeus kills him with a thunderbolt and he falls to earth where his sisters are so upset they transform themselves into  black poplar trees to mourn him.  As for Aster he has no part in that version, and the origin of the flower is because the goddess Asteraea [sometime Astrea] was so upset by the lack of stars in the sky that she began to weep, with asters springing up where her tears fell upon the ground.

There isn’t time or space now to tell you about the supposed origins of many other flowers as told by George London, Henry Wise and Louis Liger, but maybe I’ll return to look at some more   in the not too distant future, but if you’re curious about why clematis, hemerocallis, campanula or valerian, for example, have the names they do you can always go and check them out yourself .



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