Flowers, with their mysterious properties and attractions not only for us but for bees, birds and butterflies, have always been a part of folklore and legend. Their names hint of romantic tales. We are dazzled by their beauty and amazed at their usefulness for so many things, from perfumes to medicines. Some have become so famous through the centuries, there is virtually nobody on Earth who does not know their names.
In Shakespeare's tragedy, "Romeo and Juliet," Juliet asks "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." Originating near the fertile confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers more than 4,000 years ago, the rose remains the most popular flower in the world today and is a potent symbol of love.
The red field or corn poppy, though a common agricultural weed in Europe, was made famous in the poem "In Flanders Field" by Canadian John McCrae. The poem whose opening lines--"In Flanders' fields the poppies blow; Between the crosses, row on row..."--commemorates the fallen soldiers of World War I. The poppy remains a symbol of honorable death in war to veterans today. In America, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars distribute paper poppies each year in the week before Memorial Day to honor fallen veterans. England and Australia have similar practices to honor their veterans.
Narcissus (Daffodils and Jonquils)
In Greek mythology, there once lived a beautiful youth who, passing a river one day, fell in love with his own reflection and sat pining over it until the gods took pity on him and turned him into a narcissus flower. The narcissus remains a symbol of conceit today and gives rise to the term narcissist.
Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow, which was symbolic of a bridge between heaven and earth. She traveled the many-colored span carrying messages from the gods on Mount Olympus to mortals on earth. Irises come in a wide array of colors, so the name is quite descriptive of the flower as well.
Tulips may be one of the most costly and infamous flowers of all time. In the early 17th century, they were considered so rare and precious that a single bulb sometimes sold for amounts many times higher than a year's wage of a skilled craftsman, and several acres of land might be traded for a prize bulb. "Tulip mania," as it was called, may be one of the first instances of an "economic bubble"; many speculators lost everything when the bottom suddenly fell out of the market, as tulips became widely available.
The flowering dogwood has long been associated with Jesus. Many Christian claim that the four white petals (actually sepals) represent the four points of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The rust colored stain at the tip of each "petal" symbolizes the blood where his head, hands and feet were pierced. As the legend goes, the cross was hewed from the dogwood tree. The tree, ashamed at having played such an ignoble role in Christ's death, thereafter gave forth its cross-like flowers as a sign of everlasting sorrow. (In some versions, it is Christ who changes the tree.)