top of page
  • Writer's pictureMeg Grimm

Cottage Flowers that Tell Legends

THE COTTAGE GARDEN IS A QUIET, MYSTERIOUS PLACE. There is a sense that if you are still enough, secrets might be whispered.


In a way, that is true enough. Such places are full of stories. Tales not easily forgotten. Romantic legends of old.


Below are some of the most beloved stories of the flowers. Perhaps the timeless, silken bards featured in this post are just the sort of perennials you will invite into your own garden. After all, who doesn’t love a good story?


 

1 & 2 | Sweet William and Black-Eyed Susan


The Sweet William flower is associated with many old English folk ballads. The following stories are based on the two most well-known poems.


Sweet Williams Flowers

Dianthus barbatus

Zones: 3 to 9

Bloom Time: May to frost


The Ballad of Sweet William and Fair Margaret


As it happened on a long summer’s day, two lovers sat talking on a hill. The fair Lady Margaret was faithful in love, but Sir William was foolish with youth, and he had made no vows to her.

Before they parted that day, Sir William said: “Tomorrow before eight o’clock, you’ll see a rich wedding pass by here.”

The next morning, Lady Margaret sat looking out her bower window while combing her hair. She espied a wedding party riding that way, just as her sweet William had said. But as the bridegroom drew near, she recognized Sir William in the saddle. The lady slowly laid down her ivory comb and twisted her long, yellow hair into braids. Then she went out of the room and never returned to it again.

That night, Lady Margaret’s spirit appeared at the foot of Sir William’s wedding bed. A voice barely above a whisper said: “Are you awake, sweet William? God give you joy with your bride, as I have joy in my burial sheet.”

The next morning, Sir William awoke from terrible dreams and rushed to the hall of Lady Margaret. He was met by her seven brothers, who informed him the lady was dead. Sir William begged to see her for himself. Only when he kissed the breathless lips did he accept her fate.

Stricken with grief, he declared: “Whatever is dealt at her funeral today, shall be dealt tomorrow at mine.”

Sir William and Lady Margaret were buried near each other in the old churchyard. From the lady’s grave sprang up a red, red rose, and out of Sir William’s a briar. The lady died for true love, and Sir William died of sorrow. The vines met in a true lover’s knot, the red rose around the briar.


The first full text of this seventeenth century ballad was published in Thomas Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” in 1765. (Read the full text here). The story has been found in oral tradition in England and Scotland, but it perhaps survived best through singers in the United States. I took parts from several versions to write the abridged story in prose.



Black-Eyed-Susans

Rudbeckia fulgida

Zones: 3 to 9

Bloom Time: June to September


The Romance of Sweet William and Black-Eyed Susan


One morning, centuries ago, near the coast of Kent in Southern England, the noble, British fleet sat moored and waiting to ship out. Unbeknownst to the burly sailors scurrying about the decks, a woman boarded one of the vessels. Her eyes were black-rimmed from crying. One by one, the men caught sight of her, and suddenly the only sound was the banners waving in the wind.

The woman, Susan, looked around, but her gaze could not land. In desperation, she finally cried, “O, where shall I, my true love find? Tell me, ye jovial sailors, tell me true, if my sweet William sails among your crew!”

High up the mast, the voice reached said William’s ears. Startled, his eyes darted below. He quickly grabbed a cord and fell through the open space. No sooner did he land than his lady was in his arms. Her lips found his, and the noblest captain of the fleet would have envied such a kiss.

“Susan, Susan, lovely dear,” William said, breaking away at last. “My vows shall ever true remain. Let me kiss off that falling tear. We only part to meet again. Though the winds may change, my heart is a faithful compass that ever points to you.”

She did not release him, neither by arms or eyes. So he said in softer voice, “They say, a sailor has a mistress in every port. Yes! Yes, believe them when they tell you so! For you are present with me wherever I go.” Her black eyes narrowed. “It’s true! If to India’s coat we sail, your eyes are seen in the diamonds. If to Africa, your skin is the ivory. Every beautiful thing there is to see reminds me of Sue. And if battle calls, my dear, our love turns aside the balls that fly around me. I will return to you.”

Suddenly, the boatswain gave the word. William hung his head and Susan sighed. She gave him a final kiss and tore herself away. As her lessening boat departed for land, she cried, “Adieu!” and waved. Her hand reminded William of a lily greeting the sun. He smiled.


The romantic legend of dashing Sweet William and his pretty Black-Eyed Susan was told in an English poem by John Gay in 1720. (Read the full text here.) It is an all-time favorite wildflower story. The two species of flowers are biennial. They bloom at the same time and look good together. I’ve always wanted to rewrite this story as a short story or novel, and what is above will likely be as far as I go with that idea, so enjoy!



3 | Forget-Me-Not

Forget-Me-Nots

Brunnera macrophylla (Siberian bugloss)

Zones: 3 to 9

Bloom Time: April to May

*True Forget Me Nots are a noxious weed in some states and should not be planted.


The Naming of the Forget-Me-Not


Once upon a time, in a kingdom now forgotten, a knight courted his lady fair.

One day, as the pair walked together along the banks of the Danube, the lady stopped to admire small, blue flowers growing near the water’s edge. Without hesitation, the knight bent down to gather some for her.

Suddenly, the lady noticed one of the same blue flowers in the water beyond, being swept away by the swift current.

“Be it not lost!” she cried.

Again, without hesitation, the knight jumped down into the water. But the current was stronger and the riverbed more perilous than he had presumed. Just as he ascertained his mistake, the knight slipped and was swept away, too. Knowing his armor would likely be his doom, he quickly flung the little flower to the river bank, crying out, “Forget me not!” Then he vanished under the powerful water.

The poor lady surely did not forget him, for that is how the little blue flower received its name.


This legend, originating from Germany or Austria, is one of the many origin stories that exists for the name of the Forget-Me-Not. It is a widely known and popular legend, but it always seemed a bit ridiculous to me. For my brief retelling, I combined two variants and aimed to depict the story as a little more plausible and engaging.



4 | Chrysanthemum


White Chrysanthemums

Dendranthma ‘Frosty Igloo’ Garden Mum

Zones: 3 to 9

Bloom Time: Late spring to early fall


The Legend of the Christ Child


One snowy Christmas Eve, a family sat by the fireplace in their small house at the edge of the city. A few bright coals burned in the hearth, and two children listened to their lovely-faced mother tell a Christmas story.

There came a rapping on the door so gentle that no one was sure they heard it. The mother said, “Children, run as quickly as you can and open the door, for it is a bitter cold night to keep anyone waiting in this storm.”

“Oh, mother, I think it was the bough of a tree tapping against the window,” said her little girl. “Do please go on with our story.” And so, the family nearly missed their visitor.

But the soft rapping came again.

“My children,” exclaimed the mother, “Run quickly and open the door!”

As soon as they did, they saw a ragged little boy standing there with almost bare feet.

“You poor child!” the mother said from behind. She quickly drew the little boy into her arms. The family warmed his limbs with their own hands, and they shared with him their meager dinner. Theirs was the only house in the city that had welcomed him that night.

Wanting to share with the little boy some of their Christmas, the family went to fetch their few simple Christmas tree ornaments. They did not notice the room filling with a brilliant light. When they turned, they saw that the little boy’s ragged clothes had changed to white garments, and his curls seemed like a halo of gold. His face shone with a dazzling light. Then he disappeared.

“Oh mother, it was the Christ Child, was it not?” asked the astonished children.

“Yes,” said the mother.

The next morning, two white chrysanthemums appeared outside the door where the little boy had stood.

When German families bring white Chrysanthemums into their homes on Christmas Eve, they are declaring that they receive the Christ child into their homes and hearts, like so many families in the story had refused to do.


The German legend of the Christ Child is many centuries old. The variant I abridged was adapted by Elizabeth Harrison in Chicago in 1893. It did not include the white Chrysanthemums, but similar stories do include them.


5 | Christmas Rose

Christmas Rose

Helleborus niger

Zones: 3 to 8

Bloom Time: February to March


The Legend of the Christmas Rose


Long ago, a young shepherdess was watching her flock by night, when suddenly a host of bright angels appeared in the dark sky above. Along with the other shepherds who heard their message, the shepherdess did as the angels instructed and left for nearby Bethlehem. But the others were stronger and faster, and she soon fell behind.

As the shepherdess walked along alone, she suddenly realized she had no gift to offer the newborn king. She searched for flowers as she went, but there was not a single bloom to be found. When she neared the place where the star had settled above, she stopped, feeling ashamed. She still had nothing to offer. How could she go inside? She sat down along the road and began to cry.

All at once, an angel appeared. With a rush of his wings, a cluster of beautiful white flowers sprang up from the earth where some of her tears had fallen. “The gift you offer is made from love,” he said, and then he was gone.

The shepherdess thankfully gathered the flowers and went to approach the manger. She paid homage little king inside, laying the blossoms at his feet. When she looked at his face, the babe smiled at her. Her heart swelled with so much joy that she could hardly contain it.

All the shepherds returned together, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which was just as the angels had said.


In the most prominent variant, the shepherdess is ashamed because she sees the valuable gifts the magi have brought, and the angel tells her that her gesture is more valuable because it is out of love. I’m an annoying purist when it comes to the Christmas story, so I do not include the magi at the nativity.



6 | Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley Flowers

Convallaria majalis

Zones: 3 to 8

Bloom Time: Spring to early summer


Saint Leonard and the Dragon


In the sixth century, when a small number of dragons still inhabited caves and forests in the British Isles, a French monk named Leonard arrived on the shores of England. He was a holy man of the Benedictine order on a missionary journey. When he stopped to rest at the priory near Beeding in West Sussex, the brothers told him about a large serpent that was terrorizing the region.

The dragon’s body, they said, was at least nine feet in length with four broad appendages. It was covered with black scales except for the red scales on its underbelly. Two great hunches resembled premature wings. From its mouth spewed a strong and violent poison, and it left a trail of putrid slime wherever it went.

The forest in that area was a vast expanse stretching over many miles. Even with a territory filled with wildlife, the dragon had taken up residence near the villages. The working land became its hunting ground and the livestock and people its prey.

Leonard was a brave and fearless fellow, and having lived alone in another forest, he was familiar with the wilderness. When he heard all this, he set out with a sword into the deep wood. It was not long before he found a trail of slime that led to the sleeping serpent in an overgrown hollow.

Leonard observed the dragon for a weak spot. A ring of white marks around its neck showed the many times others had failed to decapitate it. Seeing no other entryway for his sword, Leonard crept to the head meaning to stab the brains through an eye. To his credit, he managed to half blind the dragon before being thrown several feet and losing his sword. He escaped only on account of the dragon’s wound.

This began a series of long and terrible battles between Leonard and the dragon. In the end, the dragon lost its tail, its second eye, and finally its life. Leonard suffered many wounds but lived, for God watched over him.

Leonard was sainted, and his fame as a dragon-slayer spread. Wherever he went, people came to hear the tale of how he destroyed the dragon Temptation, as he had named it, which became an allegory in the saint’s preaching about battling sin.

Meanwhile, the forest in West Sussex was greatly changed. As a reward for Saint Leonard, God granted him a request that the adders of the forest lose their sting and the nightingales would not be able to sing. The saint preferred silence for his prayers. As long as Saint Leonard lived, it was so.

And where the dragon’s blood had spilled, poisonous weeds sprouted. But where Saint Leonard’s blood had touched the ground, beds of lilies-of-the-valley sprang up.

Today, there is an area of the forest called Lily Beds, where the flowers still grow wild in abundance.


This legend is told by both the French and English, and there are traditional locations for the setting in both France and England. The story’s origin is likely France, but since there exists a documented alleged dragon sighting from 1614 in a place called Saint Leonard’s Forest in England, I let England win for my retelling’s setting and agreed with other accounts that the monk was a Frenchman. There are no details in the stories explaining how Saint Leonard killed the dragon, but the detail of lilies-of-the-valley springing up where the saint’s blood fell is always told.



7 | Rapunzel

Rampian Bellflower (Rapunzel)

Campanula rapunculus (Rampion Bellflower/Rapunzel)

Zones: 4 to 8

Bloom Time: July to August


Rapunzel


There were once a man and woman who had long wished for a child. At last, they had hope God would grant their desire. Behind their house there was a garden full of beautiful herbs. It was surrounded by a wall and belonged to a dreaded enchantress.

One day, the woman saw the most beautiful rampion (Rapunzel) growing in the garden. She begged her husband to bring her some.

At twilight, the man, who loved his wife, quietly entered the garden. But no sooner did he gather a handful of rampion than he was stopped by the angry enchantress.

"I will allow you to take as much as you will," she said, "but you must give me the child that your wife will have.”

In great fear, the man consented.

When the child was born, the enchantress appeared, named her Rapunzel, and took her away.

Rapunzel grew into a beautiful child. The enchantress shut her into a tower in the forest with no stairs or door, but at the top was a little window. Rapunzel had long hair, which she let fall out of the window for the enchantress to climb up by it.

One day, a prince rode through the forest and heard Rapunzel singing. He observed how the enchantress entered the tower, and he hid himself until she left at twilight. Then he called up the same way, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!”

The hair fell, and the prince climbed up. At first, Rapunzel was frightened, but the prince soon confessed his love, and she agreed to marry him. When the enchantress, who only visited during the days, discovered all this, she seized a pair of scissors and snipped off Rapunzel’s hair. Then she banished her to a deserted place.

When the prince returned that night, the enchantress sent down the hair for him to climb, but he found only the angry enchantress in the tower.

In despair, the prince leapt out the window and fell into a bed of thorns that scratched his eyes. Blindly, he wandered around in deserted places until he heard a familiar voice. It was Rapunzel, who was so glad to see him that she fell weeping upon him. Two of her tears fell into his eyes, and he could see clearly again. The prince took Rapunzel to his kingdom, and they lived happily ever after.


-Summarized from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale (and leaving out the promiscuous behavior).



8 | Rose

Red Garden Roses

The Nightingale and the Rose


There once grew at the edge of a wood a beautiful white rose. Upon seeing it from afar, a nightingale fell deeply in love. Day after day, the nightingale sang to the rose, but each time he tried to approach it, the rose’s thorns stood in his way, threatening to take his very life.

As time passed, the nightingale felt emptier until at last he realized there was no life to be had outside of love. He made up his mind and flew blindly toward the white rose, its fragrance filling him with courage. Even as he was pierced by the first thorn, and then the second, he sang to his love with all his heart. He sang through the third thorn, and the fourth, fifth and sixth.

When he at last came through the seventh thorn, his song was very faint. He fell upon the petals of his beloved, and the singing stopped. The blood of the nightingale flowed over the white petals, turning them red.


The nightingale is featured in Persian poetry. The relationship between the nightingale (the lover) and the rose (the beloved) was conceptualized because nightingales seemed to sing more during the time when roses bloomed. The rose thorns in the story represent obstacles along a spiritual journey that must be overcome. The poet Farid al-Din Attar wrote the famous epic poem, “The Bird’s Conversation,” in which there are seven valleys representing difficulties on a spiritual path. Oscar Wilde used the nightingale and rose theme for his “The Nightingale and the Rose” 1888 fairy tale to convey the absurdity of valuing objects over love.



9 | Tulip

Tulips

Tulipa

Zones: 3 to 8

Bloom Time: April to May


The Tale of Farhad the Sculptor


In the final years of the glory days of ancient Persia, a beautiful Armenian princess was betrothed to the powerful Persian emperor. The princess was named Shirin, and the emperor was Khusrau Pervaiz of the Sassanid dynasty. During the period of their betrothal, Shirin wisely secured the emperor’s devotion to herself by always playing hard-to-get, arousing his jealousy. In the meantime, a sculptor named Farhad fell in love with Shirin. The princess desired sweet milk, and Farhad engineered a channel for milk to flow from distant fields directly to her chambers. By his ingenuity and physical strength, Farhad managed to become Khusrau’s true rival for Shirin’s admiration.

When Khusrau learned that the princess was genuinely impressed with a commoner, he invited Farhad to his court to question him. Khusrau could plainly see that Farhad’s love for Shirin was steadfast, so he devised a plan to destroy the sculptor's hopes. Khusrau asked Farhad to cut a channel through the great Besotoun Mountain, since it was blocking a passage to the royal palace. The emperor promised to give the princess Shirin to Farhad in return if he could complete the impossible feat.

Farhad happily left for the mountain with his pickaxe, and by and by, he did perform the mammoth task, spurred on by his great love.

Shirin’s delight at Farhad’s abilities was more than Khusrau could take. He secretly sent a messenger find Farhad at the mountain passage and misinform him that Shirin had died of fever. Heartbroken, Farhad leapt from a cliff. Where his body lay at the base of the mountain, the drops of his blood became tulips.

Back at her palace, Shirin was told the poor sculptor had slipped and fallen to his death. The emperor sent his condolences.

The princess went on to love and marry Khusrau, but she knew in her heart what had happened. Shirin always felt a fondness for the beautiful, new flowers that grew wild all over the mountains, and she had them brought to her gardens to remind her of Farhad's pure devotion. The story of Farhad spread, and the tulip became a symbol of avowed love in Persia.


Nizami Ganjavi is the oldest and most celebrated poet to have authored the love story of Shirin and Khusrau. He lived in the 12th century and was the first to include the folk tale of Farhad into the epic. Later variants of the Farhad tale turn it into a Romeo and Juliet story, where Shirin kills herself, too, and the blood from both become tulips. True to my nature as a historian, I always try to find the oldest versions available and use those details for my retellings. (Nizami did not mention tulips, however.)


 

You may have noticed that I did not include the flower stories of Greek mythology. Not only would that be far too much of an undertaking, the stories are usually full of things that I do not wish to glorify. I also left out many other stories focused on superstitions as well. You may be surprised to know that many folks still grow certain plants to encourage fairy visits or to bring good luck, for some examples, and I do not want to propagate superstitions.


As a Christian writer navigating a love for folk tales and other old stories, it is not an easy feat to manage hidden occult traditions in folklore. But I did my best, and I hope you enjoyed reading your way through a story garden!


God bless you and happy gardening!



Cottage Garden Flowers that Tell Stories

Meg Grimm is a Christian writer on a mission to help women replace enemy lies, counterfeits and magic with God’s truth, beauty and wonder. She has authored several books on biblical wisdom for natural healthcare.

Comments


bottom of page