Friday, June 15, 2018

Greek To Me

I remember as a young boy watching the movie The Three Stooges Meet Hercules, and pretty much I bought into the whole story. An inventor's time machine took Moe, Larry and Curly back into ancient Greece where they endured harrowing adventures. You can google the film to see a trailer, but constantly look over your shoulder to be sure nobody is watching you. I just did and I was promised that the movie is an “Entertainment of a Lafftime,” and it actually is. Anyway, I think if I could get into a time machine and go back into history, I would go back to ancient Greece and hang out with old Aristotle and his plant-wise sidekick Theophrastus. The mixture of their empirically-minded brains, combined with the culture's lucid imagination of gods, goddesses, flying horses, woodland and sea nymphs etc., all give a lively perspective on plants and their origins. Although world events existed and were recorded prior to the Greeks, the Grecian prism through which life was understood and explained is what I find absolutely fascinating.


The Panax genus belongs to the Araliaceae (or ivy) family, with Panax ginseng being the well-known Asian ginseng. Linnaeus coined the genus name which means “all-healing” in Greek because he was aware of its use in Chinese medicine. Panax shares the same origin as the word panacea and in Greek mythology Panakeia* (daughter of Asclepius and Epione) was a goddess of “universal remedy.” She had four sisters: Hygeia was the goddess of health, cleanliness and sanitation; Laso the goddess of recuperation from illness; Aceso the goddess of the healing process; and Aglaia the goddess of beauty, magnificence and adornment, and of course the latter would be my preferred goddess.


*Panakeia is mentioned in the opening of the Hippocratic Oath: I swear, calling upon Apollo the physician and Asclepius [Greek god of medicine], Hygeia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses as witnesses, that I will fulfill this oath and this contract according to my ability and judgement...” A translation of the entire oath appears at the end of this blog, if you care.

Panax ginseng

Back to Panax ginseng, I don't grow the plant, nor have I ever knowingly used it as medicine or for pleasure. Chinese ginseng (or jin-sim) is the root of the plant which is characteristically forked, resembling a person's legs. I was in Beijing in the 1980's, just a few years before the Tiananmen Square affair, and we wandered into a dusty little herb shop which also featured a white-coated “doctor” sitting on a low chair dispensing advice (I guess). I was with a plant-hunting group and we all noticed jars of ginseng on the shelf and the listed prices ranged from a lot of money to an unbelievable lot of money – up to the equivalent of $17,000 for just one root. Our Chinese interpreters explained that the shape of the root was the deciding factor in its cost. We marveled at such expense and asked, “who in China could afford $17,000?” Our interpreters exchanged furtive glances, grinned and shrugged their shoulders. Remember that in the 1980's China had not yet blossomed economically, so who had $17,000?

Pseudopanax crassifolius

While I don't grow Panax, I do grow a large specimen of Pseudopanax crassifolius, an endemic to New Zealand, but I must keep it protected in a warm greenhouse. I am clueless as why the genus is so-named because it certainly does not resemble Panax, though both are in the Araliaceae family. P. crassifolius is commonly known as “lancewood,” but the narrow sword-like evergreen leaves occur only when the tree is relatively young. As the plant matures the leaves change from simple to compound*, with a totally different appearance. One theory is that the fierce leaves on young plants serves to protect it against browsing by the moa, the large flightless bird from prehistoric times. As you can see from the side photo, my daughter liked to play “wicked fingernails” with the leaves, while I worried that she'd poke her little sister in the eye.

*Changing leaves is known as “heteroblastic.”

Paeonia lutea ludlowii

Paeonia mlokosewitschii

A couple of weeks ago we hosted the American Peony (Paeonia) Society, a group of people who, if they indulge in that genus, also most likely enjoy other plants such as our maples, ginkgoes, conifers etc. The Flora Wonder Arboretum hosts a small number of Paeonia species and hybrid cultivars with two of my favorites being P. mlokosewitschii and P. lutea ludlowii.


The common name Peony is from Greek paionia – yep, lots of vowels – and that from Paeion, the “Physician of the Gods,” its reputed discoverer.* He was closely associated with Asclepius, both of whom were invoked as Paian (Healer). Hymns were chanted to Apollo to ward off evil and were also sung before or during a battle. The names vary in their spelling, and the gods themselves are shifty; for example the name Paean is sometimes the alternative name of Apollo. In the Odyssey, Homer says about the land of Egypt: There the earth, the giver of grain, bears the greatest store of drugs, many that are healing when mixed, and many that are baneful; there every man is a physician, wise above human kind; for they are the race of Paeeon.

*However it was the Greek Theophrastus who first gave name to the genus.

Iris species

The iris is the colored portion of the eye, with the pupil in its center. In botany the genus with the same name is a group of plants with showy flowers and sword-shaped leaves, and it was Theophrastus who coined that name too. In Greek mythology Iris was a messenger of the Olympian gods (especially of Hera) which sometimes took the form of a rainbow. From the oldest parts of the Iliad the word is used for both the messenger and the rainbow.

Iris 'Blueberry Parfait'

Iris 'Dancing In Pink'

Iris 'Mexican Holiday'

I grow a number of Iris species in the garden, but I'm not really a fan of the big gaudy hybrids with cutsie-poo names like 'Blueberry Parfait', 'Dancing in Pink', 'Mexican Holiday' etc. Sadly my species plants cannot all be identified because 1) I'm not an Iris expert and 2) my crew threw away many of the labels when they cleaned up the leaves in the autumn. The labels were metal and each had an 18” bamboo stake next to the label so they would be easy to find. It was painful to realize that my employees – at least some of them – have no clue to the importance of a plant name for me. I really feel that I deserve a lifetime achievement award for my enormous patience and restraint when dealing with mindless label-losing workers.

Crocus species

Crocus (croci plural) are in the Iris family and the name is from Greek krokos, and that is a word derived from Hebrew karkom, Aramaic kurkama and Arabic kurkum. The word ultimately goes back to the Sanskrit kunkumam which means “saffron.” In Greek mythology Krokus was a mortal youth who was unhappy with his love affair with the goddess Smilax, so the gods turned him into the plant that bears his name.

The problem was that Smilax was a nymph, and love always is unfulfilled and tragic when mortal men mess with goddesses. Smilax, for her part, was transformed from a woodland nymph into a brambly vine. Smilax is a genus of about 300 species found in the tropics and subtropics worldwide, and common names included greenbriers, prickly-ivies and catbriers. S. regelii is from Jamaica and is commonly known as “sarsaparilla,” which is also a catch-all name for all American species. Anyway it seems as if the mortal youth came out floristically better than poor Smilax.

Minoan Saffron Fresco

Saffron croci were used to dye the garments of women of high status, like priestesses, and the preferred color was yellow to deep orange-red. It originated as a sacred flower in Crete and eventually made its way into India, and to this day saffron robes are associated with Buddhist and Hindu priests, monks and nuns. A pottery discovery at Knossos was decorated with an apron-like garment with images of croci blossoms. Worn at the waist they were believed to relieve menstrual cramps, and saffron spice was used medicinally for the same purpose. Besides that, saffron was believed to increase the level of potency in men. A Minoan fresco found at Thera (now Thira) shows women dressed in yellow and orange-red, gathering saffron stigmas* from croci and offering them to a seated goddess or priestess.

*The stigma receives pollen and it is where pollen grain germinates.


A lot of myths exist concerning plants such as crocus. Krokos was a flower-boy who became the lover of the androgynous Hermes. Since Krokos was mortal, rough play between he and Hermes resulted in a mortal wound. Wherever the blood of Krokos fell, a saffron flower grew, the red style* colored the same as his blood. Interestingly the saffron crocus, the “flower-boy,” is sterile and cannot produce seeds, and can only reproduce by offsets on the corms. Eventually traders spread it to Europe, India and China where the saffron dye and spice had a greater value than jewels or precious metals. The species (C. cartwrightianus) became the most widespread species in the Ancient World, at least a thousand years before the rise of Athens.

*The style is a narrow upward extension of the ovary, connecting it to the stigma.

Narcissus species

You probably think that the Narcissus flower was named for the vain youth who marveled at his own reflection in a pool, then fell in and drowned. That's not how the story actually goes...but first, in Greek narcissus means “numbness” because its bulb houses a toxic substance, a narcotic. In one legend Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a stream and remained there to admire it, then eventually died of starvation. The thoughtful gods transformed him into a flower so he could remain beside the stream forever. It was the goddess Nemesis* who led him to the water in the first place because she didn't like his proud behavior. No one is certain if the flower is named for the myth, or the myth for the flower, or if there's any connection at all. Roman Pliny the Elder claimed that the plant was named for its fragrance (narkao) which means “I grow numb,” but long before that Theophrastus and Dioscorides referred to N. poeticus – nice name. Eventually Linnaeus in his 1753 Species Plantarum described the genus when there were six known species (the plural is narcissi). The name daffodil is from affodel, and that from Greek asphodelos, but the latter is a completely different plant genus. But it too was mentioned in Greek mythology, when Homer described it as “covering a great meadow, the haunt of the dead.”

*Nemesis: her name was derived from the Greek word “nemo” meaning “dispenser of dues.” Happiness and unhappiness were measured out by her, especially with matters of love, and she made sure that happiness was not too frequent or too excessive. Geeze – really a bitch!

Liriope muscara 'Okina'

By the way the mother of Narcissus was Liriope, and she became pregnant when she was raped by the river-god Cephissus. This time the (Liriope) plant was named for the goddess. It is a low grass-like genus from east and southeast Asia, and it is somewhat like another grass-like genus, Ophiopogon, and both are placed in the Asparagaceae family. The name ophiopogon is derived from Greek ophis for “snake” and pogon for “beard.” The Asparagus family includes 114 genera and about 2900 species, the genera which vary from Agave, Beschorneria, Camassia, Chionodoxa (Greek for “glory of the snow”), Dracaena, Hosta, Muscari, Polygonatum, Scilla and more.

Scilla peruviana

It was the Greek Theophrastus who coined the name aspharagos, and so too the name skilla. From there it became Scilla in Latin and was named for a “sea onion,” a squill (Urginea maritima). There is a plant also named Urginea maritima in the Hyacinthaceae family, and its name is due to one species coming from Beni Urgin, a place or tribal name in Algeria.

Anemone nemorosa

Pliny the Elder
I always have trouble spelling anemone, even saying it too, but I love the plant and the fact that it is Greek for “wind flower,” literally “daughter of the wind.” The Roman Pliny the Elder said the plant was so-called because the flowers opened only when the wind blew. I think old Pliny was blowing wind on that one because I have a number of species that flower when the wind is completely still. The Metamorphoses of Ovid tells us that the plant was created by the goddess Venus when she sprinkled nectar on the blood of her dead lover Adonis. Ovid lived from 43 BC - 18 AD, but before his Venus story our “know-it-all” Theophrastus gave the name of anemone to the plant.

Cassiope mertensiana var. mertensiana

Cassiope species

Murex mollusk shell
Cassiope is rarely found in gardens because it is not so easy to grow. It is a genus of low tufted shrubs in the Ericaceae family, and from my experience it is native to mountainous regions where the drainage is sharp, including Oregon. The name is from Greek kassiope who was the mythical queen of Ethiopia and mother of Andromeda.* In another legend she was the wife of Phoenix, the king of Phoenicia. The land of Phoenicia is from ancient Greek Phoinike which means “purple country,” and was of course a Semitic civilization in the eastern Mediterranean. The “purple” reference was due to the major export of the region, cloth dyed “Tyrian purple” from the Murex mollusk, a sea snail. Extracting the dye involved thousands of snails and a great deal of labor so it was highly valued. It came in various shades but the most valuable was that of blackish-clotted blood.

Pieris japonica 'Bonsai'

*Cassiope boasted to the Nereids (fifty sea-nymph daughters of Nereus, the old man of the sea) that Andromeda was extremely beautiful, so in revenge Poseidon sent a sea monster to devastate her husband's kingdom. Since only Andromeda's sacrifice would appease the gods she was chained to a rock and left to be devoured by the monster. Alas, Perseus flew by on the winged horse Pegasus and saved the day. The flower panicles of the Andromeda plant resemble the “chain” used to secure poor Andromeda.

Cardiocrinum giganteum var. yunnanense

We grow too forms of Cardiocrinum – var. giganteum and var. yunnanense. The word cardio is from Greek kardia for “heart” due to the shape of the leaves. Crinum is the Greek word for “lily,” and the genus Cardiocrinum is commonly known as the “giant lily” due to the huge flower stalks. Var. giganteum is the larger form of the two, and is native to Tibet, Bhutan, Assam, Myanmar, Nepal and Sikkim. Var. yunnanense is less tall, usually growing to no more than 8' tall, but its flowers are equally impressive, being white with purple-red streaks inside. The plant was first described by Nathaniel Wallich in 1824 and was introduced into commercial production in England about 30 years later. It was originally described as Lilium giganteum before being moved into its current generic classification, but one must wonder if the two genera, Lilium and Cardiocrinum, would successfully hybridize. Probably not, for I suppose that it would have already been accomplished.

Abies cephalonica 'Meyer's Dwarf'

Abies cephalonica is the “Greek fir” and it grows in the mountains of southern Greece, but was first described by those growing on the island of Kefalonia. We grow only one cultivar – 'Meyer's Dwarf' – which forms a dense mound and with shorter needles than the type. Kefalonia is the largest of the Ionian Islands in western Greece and was named for the mythological Kephalos, the founding “head” of a great family that includes Odysseus. The word kephalos is Greek for “head.” Athenians furthered the myth that Cephalus was married to Procris, a daughter of Erechtheus, an ancient founding-figure of Athens. A lot happened to test their marriage, including Eos – the goddess of dawn – kidnapping Cephalus while he was hunting. Eight years later he was returned and Procris gave him a javelin that never missed its mark. Unfortunately, upon hearing a rustling in the bushes which Cephalus took to be an animal, he actually impaled his beloved wife. He eventually remarried but never forgave himself over the death of Procris, and he committed suicide by leaping into the sea.


Cephalus really should have stayed with Eos, goddess of the dawn (Roman Aurora). Her siblings were Helios (the sun) and Selene (the moon), and each day Eos rose into the sky from the river Okeanos (Oceanus), and with her rays of light she dispersed the mists of night.


When you think about Aglaia, Eos, Cephalus, Panacea, Krokus, Homer with the Iliad and the Odyssey and all the other fantasies of ancient times, we're fortunate that the internet wasn't around then, or we would probably have none of these wonderful stories.


Hippocratic Oath

I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asclepius, by Hygeia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture.

To hold my teacher in this art equal to my own parents; to make him partner in my livelihood; when he is in need of money to share mine with him; to consider his family as my own brothers, and to teach them this art, if they want to learn it, without fee or indenture; to impart precept, oral instruction, and all other instruction to my own sons, the sons of my teacher, and to indentured pupils who have taken the physician’s oath, but to nobody else.

I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art. I will not use the knife, not even, verily, on sufferers from stone, but I will give place to such as are craftsmen therein.

Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free. And whatsoever I shall see or hear in the course of my profession, as well as outside my profession in my intercourse with men, if it be what should not be published abroad, I will never divulge, holding such things to be holy secrets.

Now if I carry out this oath, and break it not, may I gain for ever reputation among all men for my life and for my art; but if I break it and forswear myself, may the opposite befall me. - Translation by James Loeb.

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