Scent from Heaven: The Flowers of Greek Mythology

Flowers have long histories – did you know that the rose is some 35 million years old? –  so it’s unsurprising that many take their names from ancient Greek mythology dating back more than 2,700 years.

Pour yourself a cup of tea, get comfortable and enjoy reading eight of our favourite floral stories...

Roses in mythology 

Ever wondered why the rose, of all flowers, is symbolic of romance? Well, jumble up the letters of ‘rose’ and you’ll discover that it’s an anagram of ‘Eros’, the god of love. 

Legend has it that Chloris, the goddess of flowers, stumbled upon a lifeless nymph while walking through the woods one day. Saddened by its death, she turned it into a flower so beautiful that all the gods would consider it the Queen of Flowers. Indeed, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was so struck by its beauty that she named it ‘rose’ in honour of her son, Eros. 

If that’s not dramatic enough, there’s a rival Greek myth that connects the red rose to devotion. The story goes that, upon discovering a plot to kill her mortal lover, Adonis, Aphrodite ran through a bush of white roses to warn him. Its thorns scratched her ankles and her blood turned the petals red. 

Sadly, Aphrodite was too late, as Adonis had already been gored by a wild boar. His blood mingled with her tears and burst into anemones. 

Sunflowers in mythology

Cheery yellow sunflowers symbolise adoration and faithfulness, but they’re associated with a brutal tale of betrayal. 

Greek mythology tells it that a water nymph called Clytie loved Apollo, the sun god. He loved her too, until a mortal princess, Leucothoe, caught his eye. In revenge, Clytie told Leucothoe’s father about their affair, and he promptly punished his daughter by burying her alive (told you it was brutal). 

When he found out, an angry Apollo wanted nothing more to do with Clytie. To convey her despair, she sat naked without food or water for nine days, staring at Apollo. He continued to ignore her, and on the tenth day of her tragic strike, she was transformed into a sunflower, her face forever following her lost lover across the sky. 

Orchids in mythology

The name ‘orchis’ means ‘testicles’, so you probably know where this story is heading. In Greek mythology, Orchis was the son of a satyr – a randy, drunken nature spirit – and a nymph. During a feast for Bacchus, the god of wine, fertility and ritual madness, Orchis tried to rape a priestess. He was ravaged by wild beasts as punishment, with what we now call an orchid taking root where his body parts fell. 

There are more than 25,000 species of orchid in the world today, including the Mediterranean ‘orchis italica’, or naked man orchid, with its decidedly phallic shape...

Hyacinths in mythology

Once again, Apollo features in this violent floral myth, this time playing supporting actor to Hyacinthus, a good-looking Spartan prince.

Zephryus, the god of the west wind, had been spurned by the athletic Hyacinthus in favour of Apollo. When he spotted Hyacinthus and Apollo playing discus, he blew the heavy disc towards his crush’s head in a jealous rage and killed him. Devastated, Apollo barred Hades from taking his lover’s soul to the underworld, instead turning him into a hyacinth

In reality, the hyacinth of this story was more likely an iris or larkspur, as the fragrant flowers we call hyacinths are not native to Greece.

Daffodils in mythology 

One of the most famous floral myths involves the narcissus flower, commonly known as the daffodil. This springtime favourite is named after the beautiful Greek youth, Narcissus, who became so enchanted by his own reflection in a river that he stayed on its banks, staring at himself, until he died. 

Other tellings say he was so absorbed by his looks that he fell into the river and drowned. Either way, daffodils sprung up on the spot where he perished, bending their necks towards the water as he had done. 

No prizes for guessing where the term ‘narcissistic’, meaning ‘a fixation with oneself’, also comes from...

Carnations in mythology

Carnations are also known as dianthus, meaning ‘flower of the gods’. Their name is believed to originate from the legend of Artemis (Diana in Roman mythology), the goddess of hunting. 

One leading interpretation tells that, as Artemis was returning empty-handed from a hunt, she happened upon a shepherd playing the flute. She immediately blamed him for frightening away the animals and gouged his eyes out (typical Greek deity behaviour!). Once she’d calmed down, she was full of remorse, and red carnations bloomed where his bloodied eyes had fallen.

Peonies in mythology

Popular peonies are named after Paean, the physician who tended to the wounds of the gods under the guidance of his teacher, Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing.

One day, Paean healed Pluto, the god of the underworld, with a milky liquid taken from the root of a magical flower he had found on Mount Olympus. His success humiliated Asclepius, who plotted to kill his pupil for outsmarting him. Zeus, the king of the gods, took mercy on Paean by turning him into the plant that had saved Pluto’s life. It was the blousy peony, hence its long-held meaning of compassion. 

Peony roots, seeds and petals were widely used in ancient times to treat a variety of aches and pains. Research has since proven that they can indeed have anti-inflammatory effects, so perhaps there’s truth to some myths after all...

Lilies in mythology

The lily is linked to purity, womanhood and family, and this Greek myth helps explain why. 

The story began when Zeus had an affair with a mortal princess, Alceme, with whom he fathered Hercules. In a bid to feed his newborn son with the heavenly milk of his unsuspecting wife, Hera, queen of the gods, he drugged her and laid Hercules upon her breast. She awoke suddenly, flung the baby away and sprayed milk across the sky. Most of this formed the Milky Way, but the drops that fell to Earth blossomed into white lilies.

From lilies to carnations, many of the flowers that delighted the Ancient Greeks still wow us today. Send a loved one an out-of-this-world bunch of blooms today.

Use discount code FDGIFT20 for 20% off all full priced bouquets at Appleyard London. Excludes delivery charges & add-on gifts, subscriptions, hampers, and alcohol