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Plants and Flowers in Myth, Legend and Song - The True Stories Behind 10 Famous Plants

The author writes on many subjects—some serious, some humorous and some quirky—whatever grabs his interest and makes for a good story!

Introduction

Plants and flowers have featured prominently throughout the history of popular culture on Earth. One can go back to Biblical times and earlier to find references a-plenty to wild and cultivated plants. Since then, plants have been named in the titles of works of literature and art, mythology and music. They are also quoted in proverbs and popular phraseology, and they give their names to spices, medicines and oils. Many of these plants are familiar favourites, but others are rather more obscure. And, indeed some are far better known from their literary, mythological or linguistic associations than they are as the living, growing, natural plant.

On this page I present ten plants whose names are well known to most of us, and yet I wonder how many of us would recognise the actual plant or flower? Indeed how many of us would even appreciate that the plants or flowers exist in real life and are not just some figment of a creative writer's fervent imagination? So if you have ever wondered what Edelweiss looks like, or what Saffron really is, or whether Harry Potter's Mandrake plant exists beyond the pages of J.K Rowling's books, then this article is for you.

There are actually twelve species on this page - one common name is applied to two different species, and two others will be forever linked together by their Biblical context. One of the twelve is the tiny flower pictured above. Overlooked by almost everyone, it provides the title of one of the most famous stories of daring-do in the English language. But what is it? The answer is in the text.

N.B: Please note, all of my articles are best read on desktops and laptops

Plants
The well protected Rubus sanctus bush which still grows in St Catherine's Monastery in Egypt

The well protected Rubus sanctus bush which still grows in St Catherine's Monastery in Egypt

Dictamnus albus bears spikes of attractive flowers, but is most famous for its ability to spontaneously combust

Dictamnus albus bears spikes of attractive flowers, but is most famous for its ability to spontaneously combust

Burning Bush

We will start with a rather unfortunate example, because of all the plants and flowers presented here, this one is the most suspect as a true and genuine species. The story is well known to most, and indeed to almost all of the Christian faith. According to Exodus, the 2nd Book of the Old Testament in the Bible, Moses was confronted by a very odd sight whilst tending his father-in-law's sheep on Mount Horeb (often considered to be synonymous with Mount Sinai). He saw a bush which was enveloped in flames, and yet not consumed by the flames, and from out of this bush, God spoke to him and appointed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The mid 6th century Monastery of St Catherine stands at the foot of Mount Sinai on the reputed site of the bush and even today a very ancient bush - a large specimen of Rubus sanctus - grows here, believed by some to be the actual bush of the Biblical story.

However there is doubt as to whether the location of St Catherine's really matches the location of the Biblical event, and certainly there seems to be nothing about the Rubus bush, other than its age and its presence here, to link it to the event. But if not Rubus sanctus, is there any other plant which could provide the source for this mythology? In recent years many have speculated about possible rational explanations for the phenomenon described and most theories focus on Dictamnus albus - known as the 'gas plant' and indeed sometimes as 'Burning Bush'. This three foot tall plant which lives in the region has a very peculiar characteristic. It exudes volatile, flammable oils which on a windless day can be rapidly ignited with a flash by a single spark close to the plant - a flame which equally rapidly extinguishes. Indeed, this unusual phenomenon has been produced in the laboratory without a spark, and it is said that on especially hot days, the flash point temperature may occasionally be reached whereby heat from the sun itself is sufficient to cause the vapours to spontaneously combust - a burning bush in which the oils burn so quickly that the bush itself is not consumed by the flames. Dictamnus albus certainly cannot explain the 'Burning Bush' story in its entirety (not least because the flame dies down so rapidly), but knowledge of a plant which magically bursts into fire could well have presented a spectacle which became weaved into the Biblical story.

(N.B: To avoid confusion one should mention that several garden shrubs and herbs are commonly known as 'Burning Bush' including Euonymous alatus and Bassia scoparia. However, these are so named simply because of their fiery red autumn foliage - they have no connection to the Biblical story).

Moses and the Burning Bush, taken from the 1890 Holman Bible

Moses and the Burning Bush, taken from the 1890 Holman Bible

The Edelweiss plant and flowers photographed in Switzerland

The Edelweiss plant and flowers photographed in Switzerland

Close up view of the flower taken on The Raxalpe, a mountain in Austria

Close up view of the flower taken on The Raxalpe, a mountain in Austria

This video shows the 'Sound of Music' film version of 'Edelweiss' here sung mainly by Christopher Plummer and with excepts from the film. (daultana on YouTube)

Edelweiss

'Edelweiss, edelweiss
Ev'ry morning you greet me
Small and white
Clean and bright
You look happy to meet me'


'Blossom of snow
May you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever'

If the true origins of the Burning Bush are in some doubt, there's no such problem with the Edelweiss. Some flowers have a legion of references in art, in popular literature, in film and in song - roses, lilies and daisies, to name but a few. There is however, one flower which is known by just one song in just one Hollywood musical, and yet it ranks as one of the most famous of all floral song references. 'Edelweiss' was composed for the production of 'The Sound of Music' first performed on stage in 1959, but of course today is best known for the 1965 film version which starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. The song was actually the last ever composed by the celebrated writing duo of Rogers and Hammerstein before the death in 1960 of Oscar Hammerstein, but it would become one of their best loved of all. In the film, 'Edelweiss' is sung twice, and in its second performance on a concert stage the flower becomes a poignant metaphor for Austrian patriotism in the face of Nazi oppression.

Edelweiss - Leontopodium alpinum - is a small alpine plant usually found 2000-3000m above sea level on limestone soils, where it grows about 20 cms (8 inches) high. Therefore, it is a true mountain plant, quite scarce in most parts, but found throughout the upland regions of Europe and Asia. The flowers are furry white star-shaped blooms, borne amidst hairy leaves during the summer months.

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The selection of Edelweiss for the song was due to the affection and symbolism which this little flower holds throughout the region of the Alps. In past times, legend has it that Edelweiss would sometimes be collected by a young man for his true love, because to find such a remote and inaccessible flower required considerable athleticism and courage and so could be seen as a statement of worthiness and devotion. The flower has been eulogised by Emperors and used as a national emblem in both Austria and Switzerland. It was apparently loved by Adolf Hitler, but also by opponents of Nazism for whom it became a symbol of resistance. Extracts of the plant have also been used in traditional medicines for a variety of ailments, and today a depiction of the flower appears on the Austrian euro 2 cent coin. The very name itself, 'Edelweiss', translates from German as 'noble white', which refers of course to its colour but also to its important cultural status in the Alps.

Edelweiss growing in its wild mountainous location in Italy

Edelweiss growing in its wild mountainous location in Italy

The fairy on a toadstool

The fairy on a toadstool

And some fairies and other little folk even make the toadstool their home

And some fairies and other little folk even make the toadstool their home

The real toadstool behind the fairy tale, photographed growing in a forest near Wellington, New Zealand

The real toadstool behind the fairy tale, photographed growing in a forest near Wellington, New Zealand

Perhaps the most distinctive and beautiful of all mushrooms and toadstools

Perhaps the most distinctive and beautiful of all mushrooms and toadstools

Fly Agaric

Many of the plants and flowers on this page are known to the general public by name, but not by their appearance. This one is different. This one is much more familiar by its appearance, and less familiar by its name. And when people recognise it they will most likely recognise it from their childhood days and from books and drawings of pixies, gnomes and fairies. Lots of these little fantasy beings seem to like perching on top of toadstools or sheltering under them, and some will even build their homes inside of them. But for some unaccountable reason, they nearly all seem to have the same taste in décor, favouring red ones with white spots.

But whether one believes in fairies or not, one can certainly believe in the toadstool or mushroom which draws them like flies to a honey pot. The Fly Agaric is absolutely a genuine species. (Strictly speaking it should be pointed out that nowadays most authorities accord the fungi their own kingdom separate to plants as they are so distinct in their form. For the purposes of this article however, we will still consider them as plants).

The Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is found quite commonly throughout the temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere, and the species has also been carried unintentionally to some Southern hemisphere nations where it now grows prolifically. It tends to be a woodland species, associated with particular kinds of tree - notably birch, and also pines and other conifers. The fruiting body of the toadstool grows about 18 cm (7 inches) tall, and the 15 cm (6 inch) diameter cap has white gills on the underside of the distinctive spotted scarlet or orange-red cap. There are also rarer colour varieties in which yellow or brownish tints predominate.

Is it poisonous? Yes it is, albeit not as deadly as some. The toxic symptoms include sweat-inducing fevers and excessive salivation, but death is quite rare, and usually only results from the consumption of quite large quantities. Indeed the fungus has even been routinely eaten in some cultures, after boiling to remove some of the toxins. It has also been used recreationally, as chemicals within the fungus can have a mind altering, hallucinogenic effect. Not to be advised!

Thankfully this species is not yet endangered, and encountering the Fly Agaric toadstool whilst walking in the woods, lends a certain 'fairy-tale' magic to the setting, as memories of all those tales from childhood come flooding back.

A colourful group of fly agarics in a wood in Southern England

A colourful group of fly agarics in a wood in Southern England

Boswellia sacra in Oman - the tree which produces frankincense

Boswellia sacra in Oman - the tree which produces frankincense

Commiphora myrrha,  the tree which produces myrrh

Commiphora myrrha, the tree which produces myrrh

Frankincense and Myrrh

We return to the Biblical theme here for two of the most familiar terms in the Gospels, yet two of the least understood. The three wise men were said to have brought three gifts to celebrate the birth of Jesus - Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. We can all appreciate the virtues of Gold, but how many of us would want to be given Frankincense and Myrrh? How many of us would even know what they were, if they came gift wrapped and handed to us on our birthdays?

Both Frankincense and Myrrh are substances obtained from tree sap, by slicing the bark so that the sap flows free, in a similar way to rubber latex. This sap is then allowed to dry before it is collected some weeks later. Uses of both the resins produced have been many and varied - as a fragrant perfume, in ceremonies which include animal sacrifice and embalming, and in medicines against leprosy, plague, diarrhoea and for numerous other ailments, as well as in the healing of wounds. Peak production seems to have been in the first century AD, when their properties were known throughout the civilised world. Both, indeed, were among the most prized and practical substances to be traded and exported from the region of the Arabian Peninsula. They were also very expensive - hence their role as 'gifts'. The high cost was partly due to the fact that these trees tend to grow in very remote areas, and partly because the process of extraction and preparation was very time consuming. Today of course, many of those original values of Frankincense and Myrrh have gone, but a commercial market still exists.

Frankincense is a white resin which is extracted from Boswellia trees - notably B.sacra, a 4.5 m (15 ft) tree with papery bark, sparse foliage and white flowers, found over a wide region of North Africa and the Middle East. In past centuries, the Shisr Oasis in South Oman in particular is recorded as having exported huge quantities of the resin to Asia as far east as China. Today, Frankincense is still burned as incense in prayer, and about 5 million kilograms (5,000 tons) is exported annually to China to be used in medicines and perfumes. Peak commercial culture today is in Ethiopia, and other major exporters include Oman, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. But the harvest in modern times has been threatened by three problems - excessive exploitation, changes in land use to grow more profitable cotton or sesame crops, and a lethal pest beetle which attacks vulnerable trees.

Myrrh is a reddish resin taken from Commiphora trees - notably C.myrrha, a 3 m (9 ft) tree, found in the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. Like the Frankincense Tree, Commiphora has sparse green leaves borne on spiny branches. In ancient times, Myrrh was particularly used in burial rituals in addition to its other values. Today Myrrh is still harvested in countries like Somalia and exported to China or Europe, to be used in mouthwashes and in preparations for ulcers, catarrh and other conditions.

London Pride

London Pride

This is a very old version of 'London pride' by Donald Peers, but it seems appropriate as it features images of London in the blitz, and the little flower which had inspired this song (MatthewN32 on YouTube)

London Pride

'London Pride' is a phrase which is quite familiar in Britain and in other parts of the English speaking world - a phrase with a multiplicity of usages. In the creative world, it has been the title of a novel, an early silent cinema film, a dance, and a dance troupe, and most famously as the title of a song by Noel Coward:

'London Pride has been handed down to us,

London Pride is a flower that's free.

London Pride means our own dear town to us,

And our pride it forever will be.'

Away from the artistic world, London Pride is also a brand of beer, and the name has been given to at least two oil tankers and one sightseeing tour operator. And in recent times it has become best known as the title of an annual gay street parade - indeed, type 'London Pride' into Wikimedia Commons Images and you'll scarcely see a flower in sight unless it's worn as part of the rather odd clothing which goes with such parades!

At the time of writing this article, a quick search of 'London Pride' on the first three pages of Google revealed 10 mentions of the beer, 9 references to the gay parade, 3 song links and 2 for the dance. Other references included the tour company and a football fan site. Only one mention of the plant which is the focus of this page, was made.

Nonetheless the oldest and original usage of the phrase is as the common name of the small flower Saxifraga x urbium, a hybrid plant known since the 17th century, and which is believed to derive from a cross between Saxifraga umbrosa from the Pyrennes, and Saxifraga spathularis from Ireland. The plant is characteristically quick to colonise new habitats and the inspiration for the Noel Coward song is thought to be the Second World War (the song was written in 1941) when its resilience in thriving in bombed out city centres was likened to the resilience of the people of London when they withstood the bombs and carried on regardless.

The fleshy leaves of London Pride

The fleshy leaves of London Pride

An ancient scupture of Tutankamun found in his tomb in Egypt. The head stands in a vase ornamented with the design of the Blue Lotus flower

An ancient scupture of Tutankamun found in his tomb in Egypt. The head stands in a vase ornamented with the design of the Blue Lotus flower

 Nymphaea caerulea, also known as the Blue Lotus of Egypt

Nymphaea caerulea, also known as the Blue Lotus of Egypt

The Hindu goddess Lakshmi holding two Sacred Lotus blossoms and standing on a floating Lotus Flower

The Hindu goddess Lakshmi holding two Sacred Lotus blossoms and standing on a floating Lotus Flower

Nelumbo nucifera, also known as the Sacred Lotus flower of Asia

Nelumbo nucifera, also known as the Sacred Lotus flower of Asia

Lotus petals in Tamil Nadu, India

Lotus petals in Tamil Nadu, India

Lotus Flower

Lotus is another floral name with a multiplicity of cultural and literary references, although unlike London Pride, the references to the Lotus Flower are steeped in ancient legend and mythology.

In ancient Egypt, long before the time when the civilisation became united under one pharaoh, the region of the Nile was divided into two kingdoms - the Upper and the Lower Nile. Each had their own sacred symbol. The Lower Nile Kingdom in the region near the delta honoured papyrus grass, but in the Upper Nile, the symbol of greatest reverence was the Lotus bloom. Why? One element of Egyptian spiritual belief was the concept of continuous birth, death and rebirth, symbolised each day by the Sun rising over the Nile from the east and disappearing in the west, and also by the opening of the Lotus Flower petals each morning and their closing in the evening. The perfume of the flower is also said to have been associated with divinity.

Much further east, the quite separate cultures and religions of Hinduism and Buddhism were also developing deep associations with the bloom of the water-living Lotus which continue to this day. Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu faith are often depicted seated or standing on great Lotus blossoms, or holding them in their hands. But the symbolism is quite different to ancient Egypt. Whereas the Egyptians saw meaning in the rebirth and death of the Lotus flower, opening and closing each day, the Hindus and Buddhists associated the Lotus with purity of body or mind, and the development of great beauty (physical or spiritual). The metaphor derives from the way a beautiful flower emerges from the ugly mud at the bottom of a pond. Recently the Bahai faith chose the Lotus Flower for the design of their temple in New Delhi. And according to Confuscan writer Zhou Dunyi:

'I love the lotus because while growing from mud, it is unstained'

Clearly the Lotus has been a flower of very great significance to many of the world's ancient civilisations and today it remains a potently spiritual plant. Unfortunately, however, the picture is not quite so straightforward as this. It transpires we are not talking about one species, but two.

The Lotus of ancient Egypt is the Blue Lotus or Sacred Blue Lily, which has the Latin name, Nymphaea caerulea. It is a true species of water lily. The leaves of this plant expand up to 40 cm (16") in diameter, whilst the flower may measure as much as 15 cm (6") in diameter. Today the species is found in East Africa and parts of Asia to which it may have been introduced.

Nelumbo nucifera, known as the Indian or Sacred Lotus Flower is superficially quite similar, though not very closely related. Like the Blue Lotus, the leaves extend on long stalks to break the surface of the water or to float like large green pads on the water surface. Despite other similarities, the central organs are quite different. The plant is also rather larger than the Blue Lotus - leaves may be up to 60 cm (24") in diameter, and the pinkish petals of the beautiful flower may span 20 cm (8"). This species is native to tropical Asia and Australasia, and it is the national flower of both India and Vietnam. This is the flower which many will encounter in religious and festive ceremonies throughout Southern Asia.

The beautiful Blue Lotus Flower

The beautiful Blue Lotus Flower

The 'human' roots of Mandrake depicted in a 7th century herbal - the 'Naples Dioscurides' - a treatise of plants and their varied medicinal uses

The 'human' roots of Mandrake depicted in a 7th century herbal - the 'Naples Dioscurides' - a treatise of plants and their varied medicinal uses

Illustration in a 15th century handbook on health and medicine. Note the roots depicted as a human torso, and the dog employed to safely unearth the plant (see text for a description of this)

Illustration in a 15th century handbook on health and medicine. Note the roots depicted as a human torso, and the dog employed to safely unearth the plant (see text for a description of this)

The wrinkled leaves and the flowers of Mandragora officinarum

The wrinkled leaves and the flowers of Mandragora officinarum

Mandrake

For many of us, the Mandrake will be a familiar, ominously magical plant with human baby shaped roots, best known because of its prominence in those modern annals of youthful wizardry - the 'Harry Potter' series of books and movies. Who can forget the moment when the students have to pull a screaming Mandrake out of the soil and then re-pot it? In 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets', the Mandrake plant is used in magic antidotes to cure petrification (being turned to stone) or for the restoration of a cursed person to their original state. Despite these good points the Mandrake screams can prove fatal.

That's the ficticious version. Not so well known is that Mandrake is a real plant, which was steeped in myth and legend long before the hero of J.K Rowling's books. Mandragora officianarum originally comes from Mediterranean regions, and is a low growing plant with large expansive leaves up to 40 cm (16") in length, radiating out from the short central stem. Large purple white flowers are borne in spring, and these give rise to orange-red fruits. Underground a large, parsnip-like root may extend for a metre or more, firmly anchoring the plant to the ground.

So why does this very real species feature so heavily in our mythology? Two reasons. Firstly, the very oddly shaped and strangely divided roots of the Mandrake can superficially resemble a human figure with legs and arms. Secondly, the Mandrake plant contains many narcotic and hallucinogenic chemicals used in the past for anaesthesia and for pain relief. And liquid from the roots was applied to relieve melancholy, ulcers, convulsions and rheumatism. Less credibly, dried roots were used to ward off evil spirits. A note in the 5th Century 'Herbarium of Apuleius says:

'For witlessness, that is devil sickness or demoniacal possession, take from the body of this said wort mandrake by the weight of three pennies, administer to drink in warm water as he may find most convenient - soon he will be healed.'

These attributes of Mandrake are reflected in the various names which have been given to the plant. One common name was 'Satan's Apple'. Another, from Jewish tradition, was 'Love Plant' (due to a belief that it aided in conception, as mentioned in Genesis chapter 30: verses 14-17). In Persia it was called the 'Man-like Plant', while 'Mandragora' may come from the Latinised Sanskrit for 'sleep-inducing plant'.

The beneficial herbal uses of Mandrake are acknowledged widely in history, albeit sometimes with fanciful exaggeration. But what about the idea that the Mandrake cries like a baby when pulled from the ground? That ancient belief which must relate to the shape of the roots once led to special precautions being employed when harvesting the crop. Jewish historian Josephus in the 1st Century AD states:

'A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled.'

This myth which could easily have been disproved, may have been deliberately generated to protect the plant from over collection. Informing peasant farmers that Mandrakes were possessed of a shrieking demon might have prevented some from digging it up. But myths have a tendency to persist, and this one was still prevalent in the Middle Ages. In 1518, Machiavelli wrote a play called 'Mandragola' in which a Mandrake love potion plays a central role. And Shakespeare no less, mentions it four times, including a line by Juliet in Act 3 Scene IV of 'Romeo and Juliet' which refers to 'shrieks like mandrakes' torn out of the earth'.

But a more level-headed approach was also now gaining ground, first recorded in the 'Grete Herball' of 1526. And 'Gerard's Herbal' in 1597 carried this dismissive comment:

'There have been many ridiculous tales brought up of this plant, whether of old wives or runnegate surgeons or phisick mongers, I know not, all which dreames and old wives tales you shall from henceforth cast out your bookes of memorie.'

Today the mythology should be seen for what it is. And health benefits have also largely been dropped from Western medicine, though extracts may still be used in fringe practices like homeopathy.

Unripe fruits nestle amongst the leaves of Mandrake - a plant of greater mythology than almost any other - except maybe the Mayflower featured below

Unripe fruits nestle amongst the leaves of Mandrake - a plant of greater mythology than almost any other - except maybe the Mayflower featured below

The hawthorn tree, smothered in May blossom, photographed in Yorkshire, in North East England

The hawthorn tree, smothered in May blossom, photographed in Yorkshire, in North East England

One of the prettiest of English trees

One of the prettiest of English trees

Mayflower

The Mayflower is a blossom which has innumerable references through history, most notably in stories from pagan folklore, and as the name of one of the most famous ships in history. But what is a Mayflower?

The tree which bears the Mayflower is itself sometimes called the 'May Tree', or sometimes 'Whitethorn'. But the most universally accepted name is undoubtedly 'Hawthorn'. It belongs to the genus Crategus, and most typically it is the Common Hawthorn, C.monogyna, which is associated with May blossom.

The Common Hawthorn is a small, sharply thorned, bushy tree, usually about 5 to 15 m (15 to 50 ft) tall. It is one of the most familiar of all in the landscape of the British Isles, and has been for thousands of years. It is also one of the prettiest because each year, typically in the month which gives the flowers their name, the hawthorn is smothered in white blossoms - the mayflowers. Indeed it was once a pagan folk tradition on 1st May to cut flowering branches for May Day celebrations as a symbol of fertility and regrowth.

As a distinctive tree well known to our Celtic ancestors, hawthorns became more steeped in mythology than any other tree, and were once strongly identified as the haunt of fairies and magical folk. In some places it was considered bad luck to disturb the tree. In others, it was considered a symbol of witchcraft. And the very spiny nature of the branches led to the hawthorn being regarded by some as the tree which supplied the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion. Mayflower has also had a benign lore associated with it; in ancient Greece, May was used in wedding ceremonies as a symbol of hope. Many other superstitions also existed in ancient Britain and across Europe, far too numerous to list here, but they can be found in the references below. And as well as this, the May blossom has led to one of the best known of all weather lore sayings:

'Ne'er cast a clout till May is out'

There have been various explanations for this ancient maxim, but contrary to popular belief, the saying certainly doesn't refer to the month or May. Rather, it is the May blossom, and according to most interpretations basically warns not to shed too much clothing until hawthorn is in full bloom, due to the unreliability of weather before this time.

Unsurprisingly, the name of 'Mayflower' - so much a part of history and legend - has been used many times during past centuries in the naming of towns, new buildings, and modes of transport such as steam locomotives. There was even a comic book superhero called 'Mayflower'. But most of all the name has been popularly applied to ships. In the time of King James I of England, there were at least 26 vessels registered with this name. And one of these ships which first appears in the records of the year 1609, spent many years as a humble trading ship doing nothing of any note, until in 1620 it was chosen to transport 102 pilgrims to the New World. In so doing, this particular 'Mayflower' achieved eternal fame. The pilgrims who came seeking religious freedom and self-determination have come to symbolise the core values of the America, and their first harvest is popularly regarded as the basis of American Thanksgiving celebrations.

Sadly, the significance of the 'Mayflower' name when applied to ships is unclear, though presumably the name of a tree steeped in sacred and superstitious mythology may have carried with it some symbolism of good fortune - Certainly some fishermen believed that possessing a thorn of the tree helped ensure a good catch at sea. Or maybe the simple beauty of the May in full blossom was enough to inspire the namers of ships? Perhaps we will never know, but although the most famous ship which bore its name is now long gone, the beauty of the Mayflower continues to grace the rural landscape of England, as it has done through countless generations.

May Flowers cover every branch of this hawthorn tree in Northern England

May Flowers cover every branch of this hawthorn tree in Northern England

A Saffron farm in Bardaskan in Iran

A Saffron farm in Bardaskan in Iran

The Saffron Crocus showing two of the all-important stigmas

The Saffron Crocus showing two of the all-important stigmas

Saffron

Our next plant has long been known as a commercial plant species. But it is also a plant with strong associated mythology, and an aura of exoticism and luxury. The question is, just why is Saffron so regarded?

Saffron is - of all things - a crocus. But unlike the more familiar spring flowering crocuses, which we see in many gardens, the Saffron Crocus (Latin name Crocus sativus) blooms in the autumn. C.sativus is not an entirely natural plant, as it was first bred many thousands of years ago from a genuine wild species on the Mediterranean island of Crete. The flower is lilac in colour, with attractive deeper veining, but most significant and characteristic are three crimson stigmas, the female flower part, which are much more prominent than in other crocuses; it is for these stigmas that this crocus was selectively bred.

Ironically, although the stigmas are red, a carotinoid dye (crocin) which is extracted from them is a rich yellow-orange in colour, and it was this pigment which was the first important product of C.sativus. It was used to colour the clothing particularly of high status females, incl;uding high priestesses, in Bronze Age Minoan civilisations on Crete as long ago as 1500 BCE. The prized dye also had a sacred connotation in Asian regions for colouring the robes of Hindu divinities and Buddhist monks. But there were many other applications in the ancient world as well. Less recognised today is Saffron's use in herbal medicine, and yet records from as far afield as Egypt and China testify to many different treatments including those for gastrointestinal complaints and depression, as well as in sedatives, aphrodisiacs and perfumes. Alexander the Great used Saffron infusions as a healing agent for battle wounds. And Cleopatra supposedly added the extract to her baths! The third major value of Saffron is as a spice, and that is how it is most identified today notably in Middle Eastern, Indian and Mediterranean cuisines, for its seasoning, aroma and colouring.