"Hyacinthus was struck, and died—but from the blood a lovely flower was born"by Charlotte Higgins / September 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
My elder brother and his partner both trained as botanists, and I’m pretty sure that some of my early Latin was garden Latin: this was the way I learned that humilis means low-growing and reptens means creeping (see also, “reptile”). On the other hand, no classical Latin dictionary would have given me the common botanical term officinalis, a medieval word indicating the plant will have some useful, medicinal application—like Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary, or Cinchona officinalis, quinine.
Over the years, the botanists and I have engaged in a lopsided exchange. Occasionally they will ask me a question about classics. Much more often, they are the recipients of photos of mystery plants that I’ve seen on holiday. Over the summer I got a text asking me to explain something they’d seen carved into a bench in the Dolomites, where they were holidaying. “Quad in quota,” it read. I puzzled over this for several minutes before realising it isn’t Latin at all, but Italian, and means “quad-biking at high altitude.” A shame, since the phrase has a somewhat lapidary air—as if it’s a profound saying that ought to be inscribed on a sundial.
I suspect my brother learned many years ago that my passing competence in Euripides and Virgil actually wasn’t especially helpful in decoding what botanical names mean. It was only recently, for example, that I discovered that the suffix –oidesor –odesis a version of the Greek “eidos,” likeness (as in idol). So the botanical name for navelwort, omphalodes—a clump-forming perennial with pretty purple flowers—means “resembling a navel,” from the Greek. The omphalos at Delphi, by the way, is the “navel stone” supposedly marking the centre of the world—a point established when Zeus sent two eagles flying, one from either edge of the Earth, and noted where they met.
Another –oides plant is the common bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta. The name, which mixes Latin and Greek in botany’s typically cavalier manner, means “looks like a hyacinth, but without the writing on it.” To understand what on earth that is getting at, you need a bit of myth-knowledge. Hyacinthus was the young, mortal lover of Apollo. But he was also adored by the west wind, Zephyrus. One day, when Apollo and Hyacinthus were practising athletics together, Zephyrus maliciously blew Apollo’s discus off-course. Hyacinthus was struck, and died—but from the blood a lovely flower was born, inscribed with the letters AI, to recall Apollo’s cries of grief. Disappointingly, you have to have a strong imagination to spot these letters on hyacinth petals, the ones that are supposedly so notoriously absent from bluebell flowers.
My brother’s partner wants to coin a new word to describe the class of plants that likes to grow through the cracks in the pavement. She wants to use the –phyte suffix, from the Greek word phuein, to grow, explaining that her new word would fit into a range of terms such as axiophyte, from axios, meaning “worthy,” which is a plant that you are pleased to see—“a plant that makes a botanist say, ‘Oooh,’” as she put it. I had to appeal to Tim Whitmarsh, a Cambridge Hellenist, to find (a pretty obscure) word meaning a paved or mosaiced surface, but this has produced lithostrotophyte—which I reckon has a nice ring. I’m hoping that this family botanicoclassical endeavour might even make it into the English dictionary. A niche word, but a good one.