Flora and Myths

Wild rose (Rosa canina)

Numerous myths surround the wild rose, which is also been referred in Homer. According to Ovid it grew from Adonis’ blood or, according to other sources, it came from Aphrodite’ s tears for his death. Main characteristic of the plant is its fragrant oil.



Adonis (Adonis vernalis)

Many stories of flowers have been linked to the name Adonis. According to myth, after Adonis’ birth under a bush of myrtle, Aphrodite delivered him to Persephone. However, under order of Zeus, Adonis was forced to spend two thirds of each year close to Aphrodite and one third in the Underworld with Persephone. When Adonis was fatally injured by a boar, Aphrodite shed as many tears as the drops of his blood. A rose sprang from each tear shed by Aphrodite and a plant grew from each drop of Adonis’ blood, receiving his name.


Vine (Olea sylvestris)

Dionysus, the son of Zeus and of a chthonic divinity, Semeli, or Persephone, or Demeter herself and the latter king of the ancient gods, was not merely the god of the vine in theory. In antiquity, it was considered that he was the first to have taught men the valuable arts of viniculture, vinification as well as of wine drinking. His life adventures were an allegory of the different stages of wine making. Numerous regions claimed to be the birthplace of the god and of the wine-bearing vine in Greece, almost as many as those linked early on with his divine blessing. Some believed that the vine as well as Dionysus himself had come from the East. In antiquity, it was known that the numerous varieties of the cultivated vine had come from the wild vine, which was still used, mostly for medical reasons, as well as for its valuable wood.


Almond tree (Amygdalus communis)

In antiquity, this tree was known as ‘amygdalea’, ‘amygdali’, ‘amygdalos dekarpos’ etc. It is considered to be the symbol of nature reborn after its short winter death. According to myth, the king of Thrace Sithon had a daughter called Phyllida, whom he wanted to marry to Demophon, son of hero Theseus. Demophon left on a long journey and many years passed without him returning. The princess thought she had lost him forever and hung herself from a tree, which never grew leaves nor bloomed ever again. And on a snowy January, Theseus’s son returned. Upon hearing of the tragic loss of his beloved, he hugged the tree and it started to grow leaves and blossoms. The soul of the princess rejoiced with the return of Demophon but it never regained its human form. It remained a tree and each year in January, it adorns itself with white flowers.


Anemone (Anemone coronaria)

Adonis’ blood drops could have also created the anemone, a windflower which is very popular in Greece and whose history dates back 2,500 years. It has numerous colorful varieties. The short life span of the anemone symbolizes the premature death of Adonis and hence the fleeting passing of youth.


White poplar (Populus alba)

The double color of its leaves symbolized the chthonic cult. The dark side of the leaf symbolized the world of the dead and the light-colored side symbolized the world of the living. According to myth, Hercules made himself a wreath from poplar leaves when he descended to the Underworld and defeated Cerberus.


Carnation (Dianthus arboreus)

Ancient Greeks called the carnation ‘the flower of Zeus’ in order to praise its beauty and aroma. One of the dozens of varieties of the carnation, the tree carnation, grows in Crete. It was the flower identified by archaeologists as the model for the flowers depicted in the Knossos wall paintings (frescoes). Besides, the name ‘flower of Zeus’ matches perfectly Crete, the birthplace of the father of the gods. ‘Lychni stephanomatiki’ or ‘tavreion’, meaning the one belonging to the Bull (‘tavros’) are the names given to a species of carnation by Dioskourides, perhaps because it was used to adorn the bulls sacrificed in antiquity.


Laurel (Laurus nobilis)

Daphne (laurel) was the daughter of Gaia and one of the most beautiful nymphs in Greek mythology. Apollo fell madly in love with her and pursued her relentlessly. Upon hearing of her daughter’s supplication, Gaia transformed her into a tree, which became Apollo’s sacred plant ever since. This is why he was called Daphnaios or Daphnephoros and the laurel branches became his principal symbol. Laurel held an important position in myth and in the cult of Apollo: the god was cleansed with laurel when he killed Python, the terrible snake of Delphi and when he cleansed Orestes from the murder of his mother. Pythia chewed on laurel leaves to give her oracle and the winners of the Pythian games were crowned with laurel from Tempe in Thessaly.


Oak (Quercus ithaburensis)

The oak (drys) was devoted to Zeus because it “plunks” the thunderbolts and it is powerful and imposing tree. The oak forests (drymoi) were the holy forests dedicated to Zeus, where oracles were given. In Dodoni’s oak forest people invoked Zeus underneath an oak and when the god accepted the supplications of the believers, its leaves started “humming” and birds twitting from the top of the tree, denoting the god’ s presence. In antiquity, oak was also linked to the Nymphs “Dryades” who lived inside the trees, rejoiced with rain, cried when the oaks lost their leaves and died when the tree was cut.


Olive (Οlea sylvestris)

The olive is one of the most ancient fruit-bearing trees in the Mediterranean. According to myth, it was donated to the city of Athens by goddess Athena, during her duel with Poseidon for dominance over Attica. The gods decided that the city would belong to the god who would offer the most valuable gift. Poseidon opened with his trident a spring on the Acropolis cliff, but the water that surged was saline. Athena won by planting the first olive tree. Ever since then, the olive branch has been, along with the owl, the emblem of Athena and the symbol of victory and peace.


Iris (Iris germanica)

This flower was named after Iris, messenger of the gods. The role of Iris was to ac- company the souls of common mortals to the place of eternal peace through the rainbow, which has her colors. Men in antiquity would spice their wine with it’s perfumed root, as well as extract an essential oil, used to cure bad breath.


Ivy (Hedera helix)

Dionysus and his entourage, the maenads, satyrs and sileni would adorn themselves with ivy wreaths. The thyrsus, the symbol of Dionysus, was also decorated with ivy. In some ceremonies, Dionysus would be called ‘Kissos’ (ivy), because when he was an infant, an ivy wreath was placed on his head. With its distinctive climbing leaves, the ivy is often a decorative theme in ancient art. One of the most beautiful Dionysian representations can be seen on the Derveni crater, with relief spirals of ivy and vine leaves.


Arbutus (Arbutus unedo)

There are no specific references to the arbutus in antiquity. Theophrastus (3,16,4 and 5), simply describes the plant and its attributes, under the names ‘komaros’ and ‘andrachli’. In mythology, it is mentioned that the koumaria comes from the transformation of Trikorphos, son of Gaia. Dioskouridis characterizes ‘koumara’, meaning the fruit of the arbutus, as heavy on the stomach, straw-like and causing headaches. Finally, Pausanias (Boeotia, I΄ 20, 22.1-2) mentions that outside the temple of Hermes Promachos at Tanagra, Hermes reach manhood in the shade of a big arbutus.


Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)

According to Ovid, one day Kyparissos from Kea, who was one of the beloved boys of Apollo, accidentally killed a sacred deer. He was so grieved that he asked Apollo to immortalize the memory of his grief. The god agreed and turned him into a cypress. Ever since, this tree was dedicated to Pluton, the god of the Dead and it is a perennial symbol of grief, planted in cemeteries to this day. This tree held a special place in ancient religion. For instance, the sacred wood of Rhea was a forest of cypresses. They also grew outside the cave of Ida, where Zeus was born.


Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)

Hera, patron of marriage, was born under a chaste tree. The chaste tree is also called ‘Agni’ (pure) and during the thesmophoria, women used its branches as a bed in order to maintain their virginity. Asklepios had the name ‘Agnitas’ because his xoanon was made of chaste tree wood. When Prometheus was released from his bondage with the help of Centaur Chiron, he placed a chaste tree branch on his head, as a reminder of his bondage. Ιn the woods of Ida, Achilles tied with chaste branches the sons of Priamos and Odysseus used branches of this tree to tie his companions under the sheep of Polyphemus, in order to free them from the Cyclop.


Apple tree (Malus domestica)

In mythology, Melos was a young man from the island of Delos. In Cyprus he met Adonis, the son of king Kinyras and became close friends. In the royal social circles he also met Pelia, whom he married and they had a beautiful boy who they dedicated to goddess Aphrodite. A little while later, the premature death of Adonis devastated Melos who hanged himself from a tree, which has taken his name ever since, that is, milea or milia. Pelia could not stand the loss of her husband and she also committed suicide. Touched by the love and the tragic end of this couple, Aphrodite decided to keep their memory alive. She transformed Melos into the fruit of the tree from which he hanged himself and Pelia into a dove, one of her sacred symbols.


Myrtle (Myrtus communis)

With its all-green leaves, its delicate white flower and its pleasant aroma, the myrtle was the symbol of beauty and youth. It was dedicated to Aphrodite Kyprogeneia who, when emerging from the sea of Paphos hid her uncovered beauty behind a myrtle bush.Myrtle leaves bear specks, transparent glands with the essential oil giving it its unique perfume. When one sees the leaves in the light, they seem pierced by a needle. According to a myth from Troizina, Phaedra, the wife of The- seus, out of grief for the disdain of her ancestor Hippolytus whom she had fallen in love with, pierced the leaves of a myrtle before hanging herself from its branches. In another version of the myth, Phaedra pierced the leaves of the myrtle to take her vengeance on Aphrodite because she could not ensure the grace of Hippolytus.


Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

When Hades took Persephone, Demeter healed her pain with the narcotic juice of opium. ‘Papaver somniferum’ was known early on in antiquity, as one can see from Mycenaean representations with divinities adorned with such flowers. Its dry sepals were used as a mild sedative, easing the pain and mixed with tea as a cough remedy. Large doses would lead to sleepiness, even death. The poppy was the sacred plant of goddess Demeter and as a parasite to the crops, it symbolized her presence.


Pine (Pinus halepensis)

This elegant tree, the favorite of Rhea, the mother of the gods and daughter of Ouranos and Gaia, symbolized this precise bond between the heavenly and earthly world. Collecting resin from the pines has been an ancient occupation. Dioskouridis describes mixing resin with wine. Also, Plutarch mentions that the pine and all cone bearing trees were dedicated to Poseidon, not because they grow close to the sea, but because their wood is the finest timber for ships.


Plane (Platanus orientalis)

The plane mentioned by Theophrastus at Gortyna in Crete was directly linked to the myth of Europe’s abduction by Zeus. This tree never lost its leaves, thus keeping the memory of the divine union which took place under its shadow. The plane generally held an exceptional place among the sacred trees. Its green foliage hails to the thirsty walker the water source nearby and its hospitable coolness. This mere fact is what might have made men in antiquity consider that the plane was a divine gift to be worshiped. According to Herodotus, Xerxes was so enchanted by the beauty of a plane at the valley of the Meander River in Lydia, that he ordered for it to be decorated in gold and guarded constantly by his soldiers.


Oregano (Origunum vulgare)

It means ‘the joy of mountains’ from the words “oros” and “ganos” (brilliance, joy). Ancient Greeks used oregano to heal their eyes. Hence the other version of the word’s etymology derives from the verb “oran” which means to see and “ganymai” which means to become bright, light, to be happy. According to myth, a servant of the king of Cyprus accidentally broke a vase with perfume and fainted for fear of being punished by the king. In order to help him, the gods transformed him into oregano, which filled the space with its perfume. Since then, oregano is a symbol of happiness and peace and it is said that if oregano were to grow on a person’s tomb, his spirit would be at peace. Moreover, it is said that oregano was dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite, who cultivated it in her garden.


Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

In ancient Greece, pomegranate was a symbol of life, fertility, fruit-bearing, child-bearing and prosperity, hence it was a common offer in sanctuaries of fe- male fertility goddesses, mostly Hera and Demeter, but also Persephone, Aphrodite and others. However, the plant’s correlation to death was equally strong. According to the myth of Persephone’s abduction, Pluto gave her pomegranate to eat, thus binding her with the bonds of marriage as well as with his kingdom in Hades. Besides, according to ancient tradition, the first pomegranate grew from the blood of Dionysos Zagreus when he was torn apart by the Titans.


Maple tree (Acer platanoides)

In antiquity, it was believed that the maple tree was under the powers of Phoebus (Fear), the demon of horror and companion of Ares. It could have been placed in that category because of its intense red colors during fall.


Linden tree (Tilia tomentosa)

According to a later myth, the linden tree is connected to the beautiful nymph Philyra, the mother of Centaur Cheiron who became the famous therapist and pedagogue of many mythological heroes. His father was Cronus, who was transformed into a horse to escape the attention of his wife Rea. He was united with Philyra and thus Cheiron was born, an odd creature, man from the waist up and horse from the waist down. Philyra, desperate that she had given birth to a ‘monster’, asked the gods to transform her into a tree. Her prayers were satisfied and she became the linden tree.


Fraxos (Fraxinus ornus)

In antiquity it was named “melia” or “melie”. In many regions of our country, it is still mentioned as ‘melios’, but its most common name is ‘fraxos’. Homer repeatedly mentions fraxos, because spears were made from its wood (Iliad: Ν, 178. P, 767. Χ, 225). Hesiod mentions that Zeus created the third generation of men to be as strong as the wood of melia (Works and Days, 144). The plant’s name could have originated from Melia, the Nereid nymph, daughter of Oceanus and wife of her brother Inachos, mother of Phoron and Aigialeas. Melia was also one of the mistresses of Apollo, whose children were Isminios and Tainaros. She was also the mother of the Centaur Pholos, whose father was Silenus.


Written by: Effie Poulaki Pantermali