by Wanda Willis
At last spring is here and the birds sing merrily. The sun warms the land and our hearts and souls. Mother Nature’s fresh new palette of colors can be seen throughout the awakening land as we watch a kaleidoscope of spring flowers come to life.
Many yards are filled with purple, gold, orange, and white of what is generally considered the first flower of the spring season, the crocus.
The name of this small springtime wonder is derived from the old Greek word krokos, for saffron, the flavoring and confectionery coloring. Its source is the orange-colored stigmata of the saffron crocus.
Crusaders returning from the Holy Land introduced the saffron crocus to the banquet table of Henry I of England, but the plant also appears to have entered Britain via the Romans.
In the language of flowers, the crocus suggests mirth, the gladness of youth, and the pleasure of hope. In The Doctrine of Signatures it is recommended this plant be used to cure jaundice and urinary problems.
There is a legend, which tells about the Gods coming down from Mount Olympus to a meadow to relax and play games one day. The speedy and winged Mercury tossed a disc that went off course, killing Crocus, the infant son of Europa. The crocus flower sprang from the blood of the babe.
Homer, Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Emily Bronte are just a few of the many writers and poets who have praised the brave little crocus, whose bright heads often peep from the white snows of winter ahead of other flowers.
Another early flower harbinger of spring is the Hepatica or Spring Beauty. Small colonies of these tiny pink and white flowers can be seen in the parks, fields, and woods nestled in the lush spring grass.
The genus name, Hepatica, is from the Greek word heper, for liver, because of the shape of the plant’s lobed leaves. The Doctrine of Signatures advocated the use of this plant to “cool and cleanse” the liver as well as to cure yellow Jaundice. An old laxative called Sal Hepatica was once widely used, but it only borrowed the plant’s name–not the plant itself. Native Americans used the hepatica as a tea for a variety of medical complaints and for the curing of bad dreams.
In the language of flowers the spring beauty represents confidence.
English poet John Clare, used a colloquial name, patty kay, to describe the Spring Beauty blossoms in his poem “Early Spring” (1860).
One of my mother’s favorite flowers and mine is another of the early spring beauties, the violet. There are about 500 species and countless cultivars and hybrids of the well-known genus viola, which includes heartsease, violas, pansies, and johnny-jump-ups. They are widely distributed in northern temperate regions, but some species are native to New Zealand, the Amazon, and the Andes.
The modern name violet derives from the early Latin name viola, which appears to be related to io and ion, the plant’s ancient Greek name. According to mythology, Zeus seduced the priestess Io, making his wife Hera furious. In order to escape her fury, Io was transformed into a white heifer, and Zeus caused sweet violets to spring from the ground for her to feed upon. He named the flowers Ion.
In the language of flowers the violet symbolizes remembrance and in Victorian times it meant faithfulness. The violet is among the most beloved of all plants. Queen Victoria’s favorite flower was the violet and Shakespeare alluded to it numerous times in his plays. In Hamlet Ophelia speaks of violets: “There a daisy! I would give you some violets, but they all withered when my father died.” In A Midsummer Night’s Dream he called it “love-in-idleness.”
According to an old proverb, when roses and violets flourish in the autumn and winter, it is a sign of plague or pestilence for the coming year.
Many poets have written in praise of the shy violet. My favorite among them is Brian Waller Proctor’s
I love all things the seasons bring,
All buds that start,
all birds that sing,
All leaves, from white to jet,
But chief the violet.
The tulip in its infinite varieties and colors is another of our beloved spring beauties. In its native Turkey the tulip was known as lale, but foreign travelers noticed the flower’s resemblance to a turban. Thus, the common name tulip is the Latin translation of the Turkish word for turban, tulbend.
In the language of flowers, the red tulip was given as a declaration of love and the yellow declared hopeless love. The variegated or streaked tulip said, “You have beautiful eyes.”
Tulips were introduced into Europe in the mid-1500s by the Austrian ambassador to Suleiman the Magnificent of the Turkish Empire. They were first grown in the imperial gardens in Vienna and by the 1578 bulbs were being sent to England and finally reached Holland.
A phenomenon gripped Holland called “tulipmania” and spread throughout Europe. It reached its extravagant height in the 1630s with speculators investing in tulip bulbs hoping to realize huge profits from their growth and multiplication. Prices for a single bulb skyrocketed–some sold for more Dutch florins than the average citizen earned in their lifetime. The government stepped in and began regulating the tulip market, which resulted in a financial crash and ruin for most in 1637. The Dutch still reign as the world’s leaders in growing and exporting tulips.
Praise for this turbaned flower has found its way into poetry, song, and literature. Even in folk tales you will find pixies using tulips as cradles for their babies. An English tale tells how one night a woman found the sleeping babes and delightedly planted more tulips. The tulips flourished, and in time there were enough cradles for all the wee folk. When the woman died, a miserly farmer plowed up the tulips and planted parsley. The angry pixies stole out at night and nipped the roots of the parsley. Nothing thrived in the garden again, but tulips grew plentifully on the grave of the old woman.
There is no time like spring, when life’s alive in everything!