Did you know that mint, that versatile and aromatic herb, began as a Greek nymph? Legend has it that Minthe (sometimes referred to as Menthe) was a beautiful water nymph who had the misfortune to attract the attention of Hades, ruler of the Underworld and husband to the goddess Persephone.

Queen of the Underworld Persephone was not the happiest of wives (see the paragraph below), but when she learned of Hades’ affair with Minthe, she flew into a rage and attacked Minthe, stomping and kicking her. Perhaps through the intervention of her father, the mighty Zeus, Minthe was transformed into the fragrant mint plant, and with each blow from Persephone’s foot, the plant released a pleasing and beautiful scent.

And here’s a little background on Persephone: Hades had quite the wandering eye and, spotting the comely Persephone, daughter of Zeus and Demeter, goddess of the harvest, he abducted her to be his queen. Despite her father’s attempts to save her, Persephone ate four seeds of a pomegranate offered by Hades which, of course, were accursed, and she was forever after bound to spend one third of the year in the Underworld. It was decided she should spend eight months aboveground with her mother, and four months below ground, a period that became the desolate winter season during which nothing would grow.

So when your customers ask about mint, you’ve got something more to tell them than full sun/moderate moisture. Plus, if you happen to grow pomegranates, you can tell customers that the ancient Greeks held that the very first pomegranate tree sprang from the blood of Side, Orion’s wife. Believed to be even more beautiful than Zeus’ wife Hera (wait … what about Demeter?), Side incurred the jealous wrath of the Goddess of All Goddesses, who arranged to have Side’s children killed. In her grief, Side threw herself from a cliff, and where her blood spilled, the pomegranate grew. These days, though, the Greeks consider the pomegranate to be a symbol of abundance.

Need a happier story? To early Hebrews, the pomegranate’s seeds were a tangible affirmation of their faith. Each fruit was believed to contain exactly 613 seeds, corresponding directly with the number of commandments in the Torah. And according to many Biblical scholars, the pomegranate was the original fruit from the Garden of Eden, making it the forbidden fruit rather than the apple. However, early Christians venerated the rich red fruit, often depicting the Virgin Mary holding a pomegranate to demonstrate her power over life and death.

The story behind the story

Gardeners of all stripes are eager to know more about the plants they buy and tend; just take a look at how sophisticated and informative labels and tags have become. In a very small space, they contain photos, cultural requirements, tips for appropriate companion plants – as well as whether the plant serves as a reliable meal for pollinators. But we’re sending buyers past the tag and giving them online data they can access at home, and even apps that will tell them onsite how plants can be expected to perform.

Competition is stiff, so the more enticing the information, the more likely the sale. What if you could tell your landscape client that the dogwood she’s considering has a rich meaning in Christian as well as Native American lore? Variations on the Christian story tell that the wood of the tree was used for Christ’s cross, and that the four-petaled flower represents the cross. A Native American tale describes a chief whose four daughters were to be married to those who would bring him the most wealth. The Great Spirit disapproved, believing the Chief was essentially “selling” his daughters, and so he turned the Chief into a small tree with twisted branches bearing showy blooms whose petals represented the four offspring.

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Myths, legends, symbolism and lore – woody plants

Betula – Birch trees figure in legends and symbolism in many ancient (as well as modern) societies. The Celts believed that the birch had the power to purify, and even to protect them from spirits and evil fairies. Native Americans also believed in its healing properties, and told of the origin of the bark’s unique coloration (see Did You Know, page 24). Modern Scandinavian homes often include a decorative white birch log or two, believing the logs to hold good luck.

Fraxinus – Sadly for the ash tree, the notorious emerald ash borer has all but decimated its population. But in Norse mythology, an ash named Yggdrasil stands proudly at the center of the Norse spiritual cosmos. From root to crown, the mighty tree was used by Odin and his horse Sleipnir to move easily among the Nine Worlds, which were supported by Yggdrasil. (Caution: Do not try to pronounce these names at home.)

Ash has a rich heritage in legend, serving as the provenance of man himself. Norse myth states that the first man and woman were an ash and an elm, given life by the gods. The Algonquian-speaking tribes of North America also believed that man sprang from an ash tree, transformed by the creator Gluskap.

Ilex – Holly is widely recognized as the plant of the winter holidays, perhaps beginning with the ancient Romans, who used holly to decorate their homes during the raucous festival of Saturnalia. Following the rise of Christianity, the plant remained popular as a symbol of winter and Christmas. In England, holly was believed to host fairies and elves – of the friendly sort – who were allowed in the home to help celebrate the holiday with humans. Other Europeans hold that the plant can repel witches and evil spirits.

Laurus nobilis – Bay laurel’s Latin name gives us a hint at its ancient use: The specific epithet nobilis means celebrated, well-known or renowned. This may be why the laurel wreath was placed upon the head of a champion. In Greek mythology, the god Apollo was depicted wearing a crown of laurel. English laurel, Prunus laurocerasus, also was used to make the coveted crown of leaves, and the practice of crowning a leader with laurel lives on today in sports as well as academia.

(Then there’s Daphne, a comely shrub as well as a Greek nymph who was saved from the rather aggressive romantic overtures of Apollo by being turned into a laurel tree.)

Myrtus – Who wouldn’t want to have a plant that symbolizes everlasting life? The evergreen myrtle is associated with birth and rebirth in European mythology, and the Greeks were said to carry myrtle with them in their travels to new lands, symbolizing the beginning of a new life. (The Greeks also associated the plant with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. And doesn’t love give us new life?)

Populus – Aspens, similar to their lookalike friends Betula, served ancient Celts well. It was believed that the wood from the tree would protect them from spiritual and physical harm, and indeed the wood often was used for making shields. A crown of aspen leaves was said to allow heroes to visit the Underworld and return unharmed (though the legend doesn’t explain why they’d want to visit the Underworld in the first place).

The nature of the quaking aspen, with its quivering leaves, calls to mind the belief in many religions that the wind is the voice of the Spirit. The mesmerizing flutter was said to inspire followers to pause, contemplate and mediate upon the message.

Perennial tales

Now, how about some herbaceous perennial selections?

Anemone – Windflower, or red anemone, often is associated with the death of Adonis. In Greek mythology, handsome Adonis was beloved by both Persephone (here we go again … ) and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. While hunting alone, Adonis wounded a boar, but was wounded in turn when the boar gored him with his tusks. Aphrodite heard her lover’s cries and arrived too late to save him. Red anemones were said to spring from the earth where Adonis’ blood fell. (Another version says that the anemones were white, but turned red upon Adonis’ death.)

Christians later adopted the symbolism, believing that the red of the blossom represented the blood shed by Jesus on the cross.

Dianthus barbatus and Rudbeckia hirta – Ah, sweet William and black-eyed Susan. In the early 1700s, English poet John Gay wrote, “All in the downs the fleet was moored, banners waving in the wind. When Black-eyed Susan came aboard, and eyed the burly men. ‘Tell me ye sailors, tell me true, if my Sweet William sails with you.'” Reason enough to plant the two together, don’t you think?

Helianthus – Everyone knows sunflower as that large, sunny bloom whose rayed petals look rather like the rays of the sun. And, in fact, some species are known to turn their faces to follow the sun throughout the day. Scientists can explain this away, but let’s go with the Greeks again: According to Greek myth, this movement is actually the manifestation of the longing of a lovesick girl, who follows Apollo as he drives his chariot across the sky, moving the sun from east to west. The gods took pity on the poor girl and turned her into a flower.

Lilium – The description “lily white” connotes innocence and purity, and in many ancient beliefs the lily was the symbol of goddesses. In the Near East, the lily was associated with Ishtar (also known as Astarte), a goddess of creation and fertility – but who was also a virgin. Go figure. The Greeks and Romans assigned the lily to symbolize the queens of their pantheons: Hera for the Greeks and Juno for the Romans. Christians associate the lily with Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus.

Salvia – Sage long has been used by Native Americans as a curative and a spiritual cleanser, and burning of sage is said to purify one’s environment as well as one’s self. But purple sage also has a lovely native legend: A young maiden, out in the evening gathering prickly pear fruit, fell in love with a star. She dreamed that the star was a handsome youth, and night after night she longed to join him, finally asking an elderly witch to help her die so that she could be taken up to the sky. The witch refused – the Great Spirit would be offended by the taking of a life – but agreed to help the maiden transform in order to remain in the desert.

One night the witch gave the maiden a drink made from desert plants; when the maiden drank, her feet rooted to the soil, her arms turned to branches and her hair became leaves. When the youth in the sky saw what had happened, he leaned so far over the edge of his star lodge that he fell to earth. Pieces of the star shattered into a fine dust that powdered the leaves, and the youth turned to purple blossoms. Thus the two were joined forever as purple sage.

There are too many myths and too many legends to relate here. But their fascinating tales, many of which serve as origin stories, are bound to enrich the information you share with customers. They can also help you one-up the competition.