10 Everyday Flowers and Their Strange Mythical Origins

Do you know how many flowers are said to be created because of heartbreak? Or a god’s jealousy? Or even how flowers were used to determine someone’s fate? Read on to learn about all that and more.

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Myths and legends around the world provide pretty compelling explanations for everyday occurrences in nature; they explain things about our larger-than-life and mystifying Earth and things as tiny and seemingly insignificant like ladybugs. This is true for flowers, as well. Ever wonder why red anemones look like they were dipped in blood? Or why do sunflowers always face the sun? Well, we’ve got a myth for that. Keep reading to learn about the fascinating origin stories of some of our most common flowers.

Content Warning: This article mentions suicide, which may be triggering for some readers. Please exercise personal care when reading.

Greek Mythology

Peonies

Present in both Greek and Chinese mythology, the peony is known for its medicinal and healing properties. Greek mythology actually has two accounts of its creation, both being due to a god’s jealous rage — seems like that’s a popular topic in Ancient Greece! Arachne, anyone?

A bundle of pink peonies, round flowers with tight bunches of petals.
IMAGE VIA CANVA

The first story of its creation centers on a Greek man named Paeon, who worked as a physician to the gods. Apparently, this guy was so good that the god of medicine, Asclepius, became extremely jealous and turned him into a peony. The second story is similar, but this time, the jealousy stems from romantic roots rather than professional ones. In this story, Aphrodite is so jealous of the nymph Paeonia’s beauty that she turns her into a peony. Overall, not the worst thing a Greek God can turn you into, right?

Daffodils

Yellow daffodil, a flower with six outer petals and a tube-like yellow center. There is only one in focus, but it is among other daffodils.
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This myth may be more well-known as it pertains to the classic story of Narcissus. Narcissus was the guy who was so handsome that he fell in love with his own reflection. Eventually, after pining away for someone he never realized was himself, he became so pained by his unrequited love that he turned into a daffodil. Thankfully, that didn’t continue to happen to people, or a lot of our favorite characters would have ended their stories in a flower garden.

Sunflowers

One sunflower among a field of others, with a blue sky and sparse clouds.
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This story is one of my favorites; it’s so cute that I had to include it. In this Greek myth, a maiden named Clytie fell in love with the god Apollo. He didn’t return her love and returned to his chariot in the sky. She spent the rest of her days staring up at the sky, watching him fly back and forth in his sun chariot. Eventually, she turned into a sunflower, always facing the sun.

Anemones

Two red anemone flowers that have purple fuzzy middles with a ring of light purple around them.
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Along with the whole “god-so-jealous-they-turn-you-into-an-object” trend in Greek mythology, there was also a consistent theme of bodily fluids growing flowers (I know, it’s gross, bear with me). In this myth, Adonis and Aphrodite were lovers. Adonis loved to hunt, which eventually became his demise when he was killed by a bear. Aphrodite held him as he died, and her tears, mixed with his blood, dripped to the ground to create the red anemone flower, which now symbolizes loss and forsaken love.

Asian Mythology (with a Bonus Story from Christianity)

Peonies (Again)

A single pink peony in the middle of a greenery background. The peony is round with a thick cluster of thin pink petals.
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Chinese mythology also has a story about peonies. An Empress had a garden of flowers that she grew using magic. Each flower flourished, except the peony, which refused to budge. Eventually, this Empress banished the peony to a cold and uninhabitable land, as a punishment. The peony, still stubborn, decided to grow in this landscape, producing beautiful flowers and defying the odds. This impressed the Empress, so she let the peonies return to her garden, and they became known as the “Queen” of flowers.

Tulips

This Persian myth is pretty much exactly like the story of Romeo and Juliet, which makes you wonder where the original story came from. It definitely wasn’t Shakespeare who based his famous play on a poem called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, but who knows who penned the original idea. In this story, a man named Farhad is a lowly craftsman who falls in love with a Persian princess, Shirin. Farhad and Shirin were desperately in love and wanted to marry, but Shirin’s parents wouldn’t allow it.

Two red tulips in focus in a field of other blurry red tulips.
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Plotting to get rid of Farhad, the King told him that if he could dig a massive tunnel through a mountain, then he would be allowed to marry her. Motivated by love, he succeeded, only to find out from Shirin’s parents that Shirin had died. As it turned out, Shirin’s parents lied to stop the marriage, but Farhad didn’t know that. He was so distraught that he took his own life right in that tunnel. When Shirin went to look for him, she discovered his body and was so upset that she also took her life. In the spot where she died, tulips began to grow, symbolizing their undying love. Moral of the story: If your future Father-in-Law forces you to dig a tunnel to prove your love to his daughter, that’s probably a red flag.

Carnations

A drawing of a pink carnation with edges of other carnations in frame.
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Carnations have roots in many legends, but the most famous one might be Christian. It is said that when Jesus was crucified, the Virgin Mary’s tears fell to the earth and grew carnations (which is why they are now associated with a mother’s love). There is also a Korean story associated with carnations; they used to braid them into young girls’ hair to predict their future. If the top flower died first, her last years would be a struggle. If the middle one died first, her youth would be hard. If the bottom one died first, for her whole life, she would struggle.

Lotus Flowers

A single pointy pink lotus flower in a small body of water, close up, near a corner of a lilly pad
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Lotus flowers are extremely important in some Eastern cultures; in Buddhism, it is said that when Gautama Buddha took his first steps, those prints were where the first lotus flowers grew. Confucius, an ancient Chinese philosopher, and teacher, loved the lotus flower because even “while growing from mud, it is unstained.” Eventually, this turned into the present-day saying “No mud, no lotus”, essentially meaning that out of suffering can come good things.

Chrysanthemum

Several orange and yellow chrysanthemums, round flowers with thin ovular petals, bunched together on some greenery.
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This myth is actually really interesting, being what is essentially the Japanese version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. During the creation of Earth, the married couple Izanagi and Izanami were sent to Earth to create various other gods. Izanami was mortally wounded and eventually died. Devastated, Izanagi searched for her in Yomi, the Shinto land of the dead. He found her and was allowed to bring her home under one condition: He must not look at her. Sounds familiar, right? Anyway, Izanagi looked back, of course, saw Izanami’s corpse, and ran for his life. Izanami, still alive, ran after him with many demons, eventually becoming furious and blocking off the path between the lands of the dead and the living. Izanagi decided to take a purifying bath, which turned his jewelry into chrysanthemums, according to some versions.

An Indigenous Legend

Bluebonnet

A large field of blue vertical flowers with green stems and leaves.
IMAGE VIA JEFF PANG

In the Comanche tribe, there is a legend about a young girl overhearing a tense conversation between medicine men. They discussed how they would have to sacrifice their greatest possession to save themselves from the unprecedented cruel winter they were in. After hearing this, the girl sacrificed her greatest possession, a doll plastered with blue jay feathers. The next morning, the tribe’s land was covered in bluebonnet, signifying spring’s beginning.

Bonus: the Laurel Tree

This story isn’t entirely about a flower, but is still pretty cool. In this Greek myth, Apollo, ever the troublemaker, mocked Eros, the god of love (essentially Cupid). In retaliation, Eros shot Apollo with an arrow that made him fall desperately in love with Daphne, the daughter of a river nymph. That ordinarily may not have been a problem, but Eros decided to shoot Daphne with an arrow as well, one that caused her to be utterly repulsed by Apollo and anything else that had to do with love and romance.

A statue bust of Apollo with a crown of laurels on his head.
IMAGE VIA CAROLE RADDATO

After running from Apollo’s advances, Daphne got pretty tired, so she asked her dad (the river nymph) for help, and he turned her into a laurel tree. That guy probably isn’t winning Father of the Year. Apollo, still enchanted with Daphne, took it upon himself to call laurels his “new symbol” and bestowed them for athletic achievement at various games. Eventually, because of Apollo’s associations with poetry and other academic subjects, the laurel became the common symbol of academic success. The above image is actually a bust of Apollo, wearing a crown of laurels himself.

Each culture has its own mythology, folklore, and tradition. This is only scratching the surface of some of the fascinating tales decorating our history as a human race.


Interested in more Indigenous culture? Try our article about Native American literature.

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