The first flowers of spring are beautiful, of course, lovely in themselves and as a reminder that winter is finally over. Many of them have a less obvious beauty as well: Their names are etymologically fascinating.
Let’s start with daffodils. These bright yellow and white flowers were originally known as affodills, which also referred to another plant with yellow and white flowers, the asphodel. By the 16th century, affodill had acquired a “d.” In the Renaissance these were sometimes also called “daffadowndillies,” which is just so much fun to say. Imagine asking your neighbor, “How are your daffadowndillies doing?”
Jonquils was another name, from the Latin juncus (“rush”), because of their rush-like or grass-like leaves. Many gardeners in the southern United States use jonquil as a general name for all varieties of daffodil, but if you want to be more precise, the word specifies a type that has cylindrical, not flat, leaves and very fragrant blossoms that grow in clusters.
Daffodils make up the genus Narcissus, which comes from the familiar Greek myth. Narcissus was so beautiful that when he saw himself in a pool, he fell in love with his own reflection. Unable to obtain his desire, he pined away and turned into a flower. All daffodils are Narcissus, and vice versa, but not all are jonquils.
There’s another spring flower that derives from the name of a beautiful Greek youth: the hyacinth. Hyacinth was the mortal lover of Apollo, Greek god of the sun. One day they were exercising with a discus, and Hyacinth tried to impress the god by catching one he had thrown. Apollo’s discus was going so fast, though, that it hit the young man in the head and killed him. The god was distraught and used his blood to create a flower that would keep his beloved’s memory alive.
The plant we call “hyacinth” today is a bulb with small spikes of flowers, but in ancient Greece the name probably referred to the iris. The legend goes on to say that Apollo’s flower has “ai ai” – the sound of lamentation – imprinted on its petals, and if you look at an iris blossom you can, with a little imagination, see an upside-down “a” on top of an “i.” This plant appears in a variety of colors, which is perhaps why it is named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow.
Let’s end with the tulip, which was imported to England from Turkey in the late 16th century. This flower made a huge impression, and by the 1630s, bulbs of variegated tulips were being sold for the price of a small house. The name of this “strange and foreign flower,” as one 1597 book called it, derives from dulband, the Persian word for “turban,” since that’s what it was thought to resemble. Tulips were also called “Turkish caps.”
Whatever we call them, I’m glad they are finally blooming here in Boston!