University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring Article

THREE MAJOR SPRING BULBS AND THEIR STORIES
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
 

The tulip, narcissus, and hyacinth are the spring flowering bulbs you see most often in catalogs and in gardens. Most plants have interesting stories, and these three are no exception.

The tulip we know today is quite varied, represented by many species, and well over 2,000 hybrids in 15 subdivisions. But the simplest few species, from which all these have come over the years, were originally found centuries ago growing in present-day Turkey and Central Asia. Resembling a turban, they were called such by many, the Turkish word, tulbend. It is from this word that our word "tulip" has come.

Tulips had been grown for many years in the Turkish Empire before the mid-1500s when the Austrian ambassador, Ogier Busbecq, sent some seeds to his friend Carolus Clusius. Clusius was a French botanist, who maintained the imperial gardens in Vienna. He germinated the seeds, sending bulbs to England in 1578. Then in 1593 he moved to the university botanic garden in Leyden, Holland, and took his tulips with him. Other multiplied these few tulips, leading to the exorbitant prices and speculation on tulips in the 1630s called "Tulipmania."

In the Victorian Language of Flowers, red tulips signify "a declaration of love," yellow tulips "hopeless love," and streaked tulips "beautiful eyes." Tulips were used by the church on May 1 to celebrate St. Philip and St. James.

The hyacinth also originally comes from Central Asia, the species name orientalis of our common hybrids being a clue to this fact. The genus name Hyacinthus is from the Greek hyacinthos, which was the name used by such famous Grecian poets as Homer and Ovid for a plant very unlike present day hybrids.

In the Victorian language of flowers, hyacinth signified sport, game, or play. If purple, it signified sorrow. Blue stood for constancy and fidelity. To the Greeks, the hyacinth stood for youthful male beauty.

Hyacinthus in Greek mythology was a handsome young prince, son of the Spartan King Amyclas. He also was loved by the sun god Apollo. Zephyr, the god of the west wind, was jealous of this love, so one day when Apollo was showing Hyacinthus how to throw the discus, Zephyr caused it to return and kill Hyacinthus. From his blood, and in his memory, the hyacinth flower sprouted. Scholars believe this hyacinth, though was not the one we know, but rather was a gladiolus.

Originally the plant we know as hyacinth was in the genus Endymion, taken from the Greek mythological youth loved by the goddess Diana. When you find hyacinth in classical literature, it might refer to any number of other plants such as fritillary or iris. Jacinth of jacynth was the name used in Elizabethan England, with a similar name used be the Greeks for a precious blue stone such as sapphire. For this reason the typical color of hyacinth is blue.

There are literally hundreds of varieties of daffodils, in the genus Narcissus, which represent about 50 species in 12 sections of this genus. These originally came from various parts of the Northern Hemisphere, in particular Mediterranean countries. In the southern states these are often called jonquils, referring to the narrow foliage which resembles that of the rush or Juncus.

There are two versions of the origin of this name. The famous Romans Pliny and Virgil said the name narcissus comes from the word narke, meaning narcotic effect and referring to the strong fragrance of the flowers. The famous Swedish botanist Linnaeus who came up with the scientific system of plant names, and named many flowers, took this genus name from Greek mythology.

Narcissus was a beautiful youth, loved by the nymph Echo. When he refused her love, saying he'd love no woman, Echo got Cupid to make Narcissus fall in love with his image in a reflecting pool. He spent the rest of his days there, gazing at his image, and on his death his body was transformed into the flower we know as the narcissus. Unlike this story, in Victorian times the narcissus signified chivalry.

This spring when gazing on these bulbs in your gardens or the gardens of others, think of these stories and the hundreds of years of history behind them.


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