Home & Design July 31, 2008

The Secret Life of Flowers

In the Language of Gods and Godesses, Kings and Commoners

While a delightful symbol of late spring blushing into the glorious stretch of summer, an alpine meadow tossed with wildflowers represents so much more than a bending, nodding wave of blue and magenta, gold and crimson. Wildflowers are essential to the health of our environment. They feed insects, birds, and even humans, hold the soil together, and serve as a base for many modern medicines—in fact, flowering plants provide almost 25 percent of the basic ingredients for our modern drugs. Long before European settlement, Native American Indians were masters at using plants medicinally and written records exist from the ancient Greeks who first identified and categorized plants as early as 300 B.C. The following guide includes nomenclature, myths and some little known facts for a small sampling of the many wildflowers found beside the streams, along the hillsides, and hidden among the rocky crevasses of our Idaho landscape.

Western Blue Flag Iris
Iris Family • Iridaceae
Symbol: Faith, wisdom, valor and victory in war.

Fact: One of the oldest cultivated plants by royalty, records of iris date back to the 1400s B.C. when Egyptian kings engraved it on their scepters as a symbol of royal power and majesty (it was also placed on the brow of the sphinx); popularized again by King Louis VII of France who adopted it as the “Flower of Louis” or fleur-de-lis. Native Americans used iris roots to treat sores on their legs. Historical uses most commonly include perfumes, as well as a flavoring from the root used in czarist days in Russia for a soft drink, or suspended in beer barrels in Germany to keep the beer from going stale.

Legend: Named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow (presumably for the many different colors of the nearly 1,500 species of iris worldwide), who was the messenger between humans and the gods atop Mount Olympus. Iris flowers were often placed on the graves of women in honor of the Greek goddess, who was said to lead the souls of women to the Elysian Fields after they died.

From Left: Arrowleaf Balsamroot – Aster/Sunflower Family · Compositae
 Rocky Mountain Aster – Aster/Sunflower Family · Compositae
Pearly Everlasting – Aster/Sunflower Family · Compositae
Western Columbine – Buttercup Family · Ranunculaceae



Sego Lily – Lily Family · Liliaceae

Symbol: Peace, chastity, innocence and virtue, as well as fertility.

Fact: In Roman times, the juice from lily bulbs was said to cure corns, and common belief held that planting lilies in the garden would protect the garden from ghosts and evil spirits. In more recent history, bulbs were ground and made into porridge by Native Americans and “sego” is a Shoshonean word thought to mean “edible bulb.” The Sego Lily was adopted as the Utah state flower in 1911, in part due to its use as an essential food source by Mormon pioneers of 1848-1849, and it is known in California as the Mariposa Lily, which translates to “butterfly” from Spanish.

Legend: Dedicated to the goddess Hera, the wife of Zeus, the lily was formed after Hera flung Hercules from nursing at her breast (Zeus fathered Hercules with the mortal woman Alceme and brought him to Hera’s breast after he had drugged her to sleep). As Hera flung Hercules from her breast, a few drops of her milk spilled across the heavens to form the Milky Way. The drops that fell to earth were said to have formed the first white lilies. In a similar tale, Christian legend tells that the lily sprang from Eve’s tears falling to the ground, when upon being expelled from Eden she learned that she was pregnant.

Left: Camas Lily – Lily Family · Lilaceae  ~  Fawn Lily – Lily Family · Lilaceae
Right: Foothill Death Camas – Lily Family · Lilaceae




Indian Paintbrush  Snapdragon/Figwort Family · Scrophulariaceae
Symbol: Red can symbolize passion, heart and the emotions. Native American symbols include fire, success, and the sacred; while Buddhist symbols include fire, blood and the life force.

Fact: The most common form of Indian Paintbrush (also known by the common name of scarlet painted cup) is scarlet red or bright orange, but it can also be found in a variety of colors from pale yellow or green to pink, purple, magenta and bright orange. Paintbrush was used by Native American Indians to soothe burned skin or to ease the sting of certain insects. Semi-parasitic—the paintbrush roots receive part of their nourishment from the roots of other native wildflowers and native grasses (without killing the host plant). Also, the red “flowers” are actually modified leaves called bracts. The actual flowers are small with yellowish-pink petals and are found at the base of each bract.

Legend: Cherokee legend tells the story of a young boy who wanted more than anything else to be a great warrior for his tribe. But he was very small and couldn’t keep up with the bigger boys as they learned the skill necessary to become warriors. A wise shaman told the boy that he had a different gift from the other children. And so he began to paint pictures of all the events and happenings of the tribe. As a young man, he became obsessed with capturing the colors and beauty of the sunset, the colors of which kept eluding him. Frustrated, he appealed to the Great Spirit, who gave him paintbrushes dripping with the colors of the sunset. The boy worked feverishly, tossing each brush aside as he finished his masterpiece. Wherever he tossed a brush, the hillsides bloomed with brilliant wildflowers in every hue of the sunset. Legend holds that, every spring, the Great Spirit sends the colors of the sunset to remind us of the little boy who captured the sunset for his tribe.


Lewis Monkey Flower – Snapdragon/Figwort Family · Scrophulariaceae






Western Lupine – Pea Family · Leguminosae







Buckwheat – Buckwheat Family · Polygonaceae







Grass of Parnassus – Saxifrage Family · Saxifragaceae






Sticky Geranium
Geranium Family • Geraniaceae
Symbol: Health, love and protection; friendship and remembrance.

Fact: In some parts of New England, geranium plants were believed to ward off snakes. It was also thought that a geranium in the window prevented flies from entering the house. Historically, geranium has been used for the treatment topically of dermatitis or acne, and it was also a popular cure for dysentery and cholera.

Legend: According to old Moslem legend, the prophet Muhammad imbued geranium with its lovely scent, when one day he passed by a humble weed on his way down from the mountain. He stopped to rest and hung his shirt on the plant to dry. The geranium held it up to the sun until it was dry and this pleased the prophet so much that he covered it in beautifully-scented and brightly-colored flowers.


This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.