Gods and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants

Gods and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants

Gods and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants

Gods and Goddesses in the Garden: Greco-Roman Mythology and the Scientific Names of Plants


Zeus, Medusa, Hercules, Aphrodite. Did you know that these and other dynamic deities, heroes, and monsters of Greek and Roman mythology live on in the names of trees and flowers? Some grow in your local woodlands or right in your own backyard garden. In this delightful book, botanist Peter Bernhardt reveals the rich history and mythology that underlie the origins of many scientific plant names. Unlike other books about botanical taxonomy that take the form of heavy and intimidating lexicons, Bernhardt's account comes together in a series of interlocking stories. Each chapter opens with a short version of a classical myth, then links the tale to plant names, showing how each plant "resembles" its mythological counterpart with regard to its history, anatomy, life cycle, and conservation. You will learn, for example, that as our garden acanthus wears nasty spines along its leaf margins, it is named for the nymph who scratched the face of Apollo. The shape-shifting god, Proteus, gives his name to a whole family of shrubs and trees that produce colorful flowering branches in an astonishing number of sizes and shapes. Amateur and professional gardeners, high school teachers and professors of biology, botanists and conservationists alike will appreciate this book's entertaining and informative entry to the otherwise daunting field of botanical names. Engaging, witty, and memorable, Gods and Goddesses in the Garden transcends the genre of natural history and makes taxonomy a topic equally at home in the classroom and at cocktail parties.


Thou still unravished bride of quietness!
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

—JOHN keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Is it better for gardeners, professional horticulturists, conservationists, and naturalists to learn the common names of plants or their scientific names? Readers of my past books know I emphasize the importance of common names, as they offer a royal road to world folklore and economic botany. the more common names a plant receives, both regionally and in different languages, the easier it is to discern how different cultures have viewed it and used it over time. Perennial herbs sold under the name of monkshood or troll’s hat reflect nothing more than a whimsical interpretation of a flower’s shape. When the same plants are called wolfsbane or badger’s bane, they take us back to darker times when roots were rendered to make poison baits to lure and kill wild animals.

Unfortunately, when common names are employed exclusively to make identifications, we are often forced to contend with three equally frustrating problems. First, many plants lack common names, or their common names were lost. It is estimated that there are more than a quarter of a million plant species on this planet. Natural variation defies human imagination and verbal creativity. Traditional cultures often fail to name plants that have no immediate use. Thousands of wild orchid species cling to the limbs of trees from southern Mexico to Panama, for example, but local people, if questioned, are likely to refer to almost all of them as parasitas (parasites), or to their flowers as conchitas (little shells). the famous ethnobotanist and . . .

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