Plant Mythology & Legends

by Alex Tisthammer

Demeter, Boboli Gardens, Florence. Dimitris Kamaras from Athens, Greece, via Wikimedia Commons

Fall always feels like a magical time, the leaves are changing brilliant colors around us and gently falling to the earth, even the air seems to be yellow. The potency of this season makes it hard to ignore the importance and beauty of the natural world around us, how it makes us feel, or what a single flower or fallen leaf can invoke in us. Thus, it comes as no surprise that plants have always held a deeper meaning for humans, even more so in the past. Gardens and the majority of the plants they hold are linked to gods and goddesses, legends and symbolism. Even the physical garden has a goddess, Gerðr(Gerd), from Norse culture. Her name translates to “enclosure”, and is sometimes called “The One who is Fenced In.” She was worshiped to bring prosperity to cultivated spaces, the fertile earth and gardens. 

A popular and common herb in medicinal gardens, mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), has ties in many cultures and is still used widely today. Mugwort’s botanical name, Artemisia, stems from the Greek moon goddess’ name, Artemis. Mugwort is used medicinally to help treat reproductive disorders, regulate menstruation cycles, and relieve menopause symptoms, also dubbing it “The Mother of Herbs”. It could be found hung on doors or planted at entrances to signify a midwife or healer lived there as well. Along with having many medicinal properties, it was considered a gateway to the spirit world. In shamanistic cultures it was used to communicate with ancestors, while in Native American culture, it was used to ward off ghosts from the other realm. Not only was it used as a tool to communicate with those who have moved on, but was also used as a way to lucid dream and explore your dreams, tucked under a pillow or consumed as a tea or tonic at bedtime. 

Hawthorns are resilient and tough trees that can live for over 400 years. Naturally this makes these trees very meaningful to the land they grow in and the people that inhabit that land. In Celtic culture they are tied to Beltane, the ancient festival of spring. In Scotland and Ireland they are well known as the Fairy Tree. Fairies are said to live under and guard over them, and are to be treated with great respect. If the tree or the fairies beneath it are mistreated or disturbed, the perpetrator could befall misfortune, illness or death! In Greek mythology the hawthorn is associated with the god of marriage, Hymen, so the branches were carried in wedding processions to symbolize hope and good fortune for the newlyweds. This tradition was carried into medieval times- seen as a symbol of love, romance and fertility. Maypoles were made of hawthorn wood and crowns of hawthorn flowers were worn by young women looking to attract a suitor.

A popular motif in many mythologies and religions that can be seen in Colorado is the wild rose. In Christianity it is said that a wild rose grew where Christ died, the thorns symbolizing his great sacrifice for man and the crown atop his head, while the red color of the blossoms represented his blood. Several Native American tribes including the Interior Séliš peoples and the Nimiipuu saw it as a representation of the good things in life and it was commonly stitched into quill and beadwork. The Numa, Nimiipuu and Interior Séliš peoples also used wild roses as protection from ghosts that could harm the living. The rose hips were placed in their homes or in their clothing as protection against hauntings or if someone was mourning the loss of a loved one. The rose hips were also a big part of their diet, being high in vitamin C, made into a tea, cooked or eaten in a pudding. In other cultures it was seen as a symbol of different goddesses, including the Norse goddess Freyja and the Greek goddess Aphrodite, both representing love, beauty and femininity. 

Another plant believed to connect us to the spirit world that is very much present in our culture today is the marigold. Marigolds are common in various cultures, but the most well known is their use in Día De Los Muertos celebrations. This stems from Tenochca (also known as Aztec) traditions, who used them in their celebrations to honor the dead. The Tenochca story behind their use is about two lovers, Xótchitl and Huitzilin. They would hike to the top of a tall mountain to offer flowers to the sun god Tonatiuh, to represent their commitment and love for each other. Tragically, Huitzilin was killed in a battle, and a grief stricken Xótchitl prayed to the sun god for them to be reunited on earth. Hearing her pleas, he sent a ray of sun that transformed her into a flower as gold as the sun, a marigold. Her lover is then sent back to earth by Tonatiuh as a hummingbird. When they are reunited he visits her to drink her nectar, and her twenty petals unfurl and release the beautiful scent we all know marigolds to have. The Nahuatl name for marigolds, Cempohualxochitl, translates to twenty petals and the scent is said to be so powerful it can lead souls through the darkness to the light of their families’ homes.  

Most plants have some sort of symbolism behind them, and have always been an important part of human existence. They provide medicine and protection and inspire artwork, architecture, and fashion. They are all around us, even in the most urban of areas. You can see them popping up through the smallest sidewalk cracks and taking back abandoned empty lots. They may not be as present in our day to day lives as they once were, but they still hold potent meaning to anyone willing to learn about what they symbolize in everyday life. Next spring when you see the hawthorn tree in bloom, think of young women prancing around a maypole with the flowers in their hair, or when you see the fiery orange marigolds on Días De Los Muertos, imagine the two lovers Xótchitl and Huitzilin, reunited once more.

*This article is meant to inform on past practices, mythologies and historical information, and is no way medical advice. 

Originally published on October 30th, 2023. Updated on November 1st, 2023.