The Penwith Papers

myths and tales of some plants in Morrab Gardens, Penzance

Morrab House with its walled garden was built in 1841 and bought by Penzance Corporation in 1888. The London designer, Reginald Upcher, won the prize of 20 guineas with his plan to turn the three acre site into a public park. The sub-tropical collection was started in the 1880s with contributions of plants from local gentry including the Bolithos of Trengwainton and Trewidden, the Dorian Smiths of Tresco Isles of Scilly, the Boscawen family at Ludgvan, and plants sent from New Zealand by botanist Rev William Colenso.

Importation of exotic plant specimens had begun in earnest with the invention in the early 1800s of the Wardian case (Treseder, S A Passion for Plants, 2004, Alison Hodge, Newmill p 37), a sort of early portable terrarium with glass sides.

Many sub-tropical plants were then considered to be frost-tender and so were grown under glass with stove heating. The repeal of the Glass Tax in 1845 led to a boom in conservatories among the wealthy. When these dilapidated Victorian glasshouses were re-discovered in the 20th century, many of the so-called tender plants such as camellias had, however, shattered the glass-paned roofs - and were thriving when exposed to the elements.

There are many versions of some of the myths associated with the plants. But now we present a personal choice: 23 plants and their stories of love, lust, jealousy, bloodshed and death...

, Greek architect plant or bear’s breeches

Acantha was loved by the god Apollo but she rebuffed him and scratched his face. So Apollo transformed her into Acanthus spinosus, a plant with spiny leaves.

A young Greek girl died and her nurse placed her possessions in a basket near her tomb. An acanthus plant grew around the basket and enclosed it. The sculptor Callimachus noticed this arrangement and was inspired to design the sculptured leaves that adorn the capitals of Greek Corinthian columns.

Auracaria or Monkey Puzzle Tree

The Devil himself sits in this tree. People have to be quiet when walking past - or else they will attract the Devil’s attention: a sure route to bad luck.

Agave or Century plant
makes an intoxicating Mexican drink called pulque

The personification of the plant, Mayahuel, is the Aztec goddess of fertility and nourishment; she allegedly gave birth to the 400 rabbits considered by the Aztecs to be gods of intoxication.

In Greek mythology Agave, the goddess of desire, was a follower of Dionysus, the father of bacchanals and profound inebriation.

Amelanchier or serviceberry, is the first shrub to flower in the Appalachians, signalling the opening of the roads at the end of winter. The circuit-riding preachers could now reach the outlying villages, to conduct funerals for those who had died during the winter. Serviceberry being abundant and white-flowered, it was gathered for the services.

or strawberry tree was imported into 16th century England from Ireland. Its red fruits, white blossoms and green leaves are said to have inspired the colours of the Italian flag.

Azalea is the national flower of Nepal.

Long-ago a Chinese king was assassinated and turned into a cuckoo. The cuckoo sang so bitterly because of the king’s violent death, that blood came from his bill. April being the time of both the cuckoo’s cries and the brilliant red azalea blooms, the legend says that the cuckoo dyed the flowers red.

Camellia sinensis is a species of evergreen shrub or small tree whose leaves and leaf buds are used to produce the tea we drink.

Cornus or dogwood is the state flower of Virginia, USA. Native American uses were for toothbrushes, daggers and arrows. It was also used as a calendar: when the dogwood flowers it is time to plant maize.

In American Indian legend, a beautiful Cherokee princess was courted by a brave. She refused his advances and, in a jealous rage, he killed her. The maiden used the blossoms of a dogwood to soak up her blood as she lay dying. This explains the red stains at the tip of each petal or bract. The red-blossomed dogwood is named Cornus florida - Cherokee Princess’ - in honour of the legend.

In Christian legend, dogwood once grew tall and straight. The wood was used to construct the cross Jesus was crucified upon. The dogwood tree was so distraught that Jesus took pity upon it and promised that it would never again be used for crucifixions. Since then, the dogwood tree has grown bent and twisted, unable to reach any significant height. The petals of its flowers grow in the shape of the cross, each bearing the reddish mark of a rusty nail.


Crocus sativus

Krokos was a boy loved by the god Hermes. After his accidental death, the god transformed him into the crocus flower. Its red stigmas signify his spilt blood.

Zeus, king of the gods, spied the Phoenician princess Europa gathering flowers in spring. He turned into a bull and breathed a crocus from his mouth; she found him irresistible and he carried her away.


Cypress sempervirens

Cyparissus, grandson of Hercules, had a favourite companion; a tame stag. He accidentally killed the stag while hunting, as it lay sleeping in the woods. The gods turned him into a cypress tree, whose sap forms droplets like tears on the trunk. Because of this, the cypress tree became the classical symbol of mourning.


Davidia, the Chinese dove tree or the handkerchief tree

This is story is about a famous Chinese heroine, Wang Zhaojun, who was a real person. She lived from 52 - 19 BC and was a concubine of the Han Dynasty emperor Yuan.

After years of war, the enemy khan or prince asked to marry the Emperor's daughter to seal the peace. Not wanting to send his daughter, the Emperor instead called for volunteers from his harem. Wang Zhaojun volunteered and he asked for her picture. Although she was very beautiful - one of the "Four Great Beauties" of ancient China - he was shown an unflattering painting, and allowed her to leave. On the journey to her new home she was terribly homesick, so each day she sent a letter home by dove, which is a symbol of peace in China. The relay of doves landed in the tree outside her family's home; when in full flower the tree looks as if it is full of doves… or handkerchiefs.


Dicksonia or Tree Fern
was first collected in 1785 and introduced to Cornwall from Australasia in the 1880s by Cornish nurseryman John Garland Treseder. (Treseder, S A Passion for Plants, 2004, Alison Hodge, Newmill p 39).

According to Treseder family legend, the trunks of tree ferns (minus their fronds and roots) were originally imported as ships’ ballast, and they spontaneously began to shoot on their arrival in Falmouth.


Dracaena palm 

Ladon, a serpent-like dragon, guarded the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides which belonged to the nymphs of the evening. Hercules’ task was to steal these apples and so he killed the dragon, whose blood flowed out; dragon trees sprouted from the spilt blood and so Dracaena palms bleed red when cut.

Helleborus nigra or Christmas rose

During the Siege of Kirrha in 585 BC the Greek forces are said to have poisoned the city’s water supply by adding crushed hellebore leaves. The besieged inhabitants drank the poisoned water – resulting in severe diarrhoea. As the city was now undefended, the Greeks secured it for themselves.

A concoction of hellebore is said to have caused the death of Alexander the Great, whose royal cup bearer administered it to him; Alexander died of poisoning 12 days later.

Christmas rose is said to represent the tears of a young Jewish girl who was sad that she was too poor to have a gift to offer to the baby Jesus, as was the custom in her day.

Hydrangea symbolised arrogance and frigidity in the medieval world, because it was believed that young women who grew them would never be sufficiently warm and humble to find husbands…

Laurus Nobilis or Bay laurel is mentioned in Classical Greek, Roman, and Biblical culture. The laurel wreath of Ancient Greece, a symbol of highest status, was made of Bay laurel; it is also the Christian symbol for the resurrection of Christ. Locally in West Cornwall it was used for marinating pilchards!

Mischievous Eros fired two arrows: a gold arrow that struck the sun god Apollo and made him fall in love with Daphne, and a lead arrow that made Daphne hate Apollo. Under the spell of the arrow, Apollo continued to follow Daphne, but she continued to reject him. Daphne turned to the river god for help and was turned into a laurel tree. Contrite Apollo used his powers of eternal youth and immortality to make Daphne’s laurel leaves evergreen.

Magnolia was first recorded by westerners as being cultivated by Aztecs at the time of Montezuma.

In the American South, white magnolias are commonly seen in bridal bouquets because the flowers are thought to reflect and emphasize the bride's purity and nobility.

In ancient China, magnolias symbolised womanly beauty and gentleness.

The leaves of Morus alba or Mulberry tree were traditionally fed to silkworms in China, and used by the Romans as a mouth wash.

Babylonian lovers Pyramus and Thisbe met at night under a mulberry tree outside the city. Thisbe arrived first, wearing a veil. When she heard a lion roar, she fled, dropping her veil. The lion, whose jaws were bloody, found the scarf and tore it up. When Pyramus arrived, he saw the stained, tattered veil and assumed that Thisbe was dead. He drew his sword and stabbed himself. Thisbe then returned to find Pyramus dying, and she used his sword to kill herself as well. It is said that, before this incident, the fruit of the mulberry tree was white. However, the blood from Pyramus and Thisbe turned its fruit deep red.

German folklore says the roots of mulberry are used by the devil to polish his boots!

According to an Armenian story: a silkworm wove an especially beautiful dress which possessed magic powers. Any woman who wore it would become more attractive - and able to go without food for days. The girl for whom the dress had been made wore it and then lent it to her friend, who passed it on in her turn. All were happy because they were all so beautiful.

The king chose one of the girls to be his wife. She then insisted that she would be the only one who would wear the beautiful dress. Her friends grew angry, threw stones and broke into the palace. They found the new queen, ripped the dress from her hands and tore it to shreds. The hem of the dress grew into a tree trunk with many branches. The shreds of the torn dress flew up to the branches of the tree with swollen pink buds and broad leaves, forming a dense bushy crown.

Myrtus or myrtle

Aphrodite was Greek goddess of love, beauty and sex and guardian of the gates of birth and death; myrtle was planted in Aphrodite’s temple gardens and shrines, and she is often depicted with a myrtle crown, sprig or wreath.

Myrrha was a Cyprian princess who fell in love with her father and conspired to seduce him in disguise. After the deed she fled her father’s wrath and was transformed into a myrtle tree. The boy Adonis [please link to ] was later born from her trunk. The same story is told of the myrrh tree.


Narcissus, a handsome and proud young man, was punished by the gods for his vanity. Gazing at his own image in a stream, he fell in and drowned. The body, however, was not to be found – only a flower with a trumpet of gold and pale white petals.

A crusader sent daffodil bulbs from the Holy Land back to his wife as a special present. On his return she served the bulbs at the welcome feast, thinking that they were of the onion family. Unfortunately, the crusader and his lady died of lycorine poisoning.

Punica or pomegranate was one of the first fruit trees to be domesticated. It dates back to ancient Egyptian times, and was cultivated in Europe during the early Bronze Age. Remains have been found on a 14th century BC Turkish shipwreck.

Hades, King of the Underworld, abducted Persephone to be his wife. She refused to eat while she remained with him, until he tempted her with the seed of the pomegranate. She tasted these - and by so doing was condemned to spend six months of each year in the underworld.

Rosmarinus or Rosemary is a symbol of remembrance dating back to ancient Egypt. It was sold for herbal uses in Roman times, and in the mediaeval period was tucked under pillows to ward off nightmares and visits from evil spirits. It was also burned in the house against the black plague. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet Ophelia pleads with her brother to remember their father’s death: “There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you love, remember.”

Trachycarpus ‘fortunei’, Chusan palm or Windmill palm was named after plant collector Robert Fortune who collected young plants on islands off the East coast of China in the mid-19th century. As Britain and China were engaged in hostilities at the time, Fortune wore Chinese costume and shaved his head in the Chinese style, to conceal the fact that he was a European.

Most of these stories are not local - the legends and myths come from from China, the Mediterranean (especially Ancient Greece), Babylon, the Middle East, North America, Armenia, Germany, Mexico and the Christian faith.

There are many more stories waiting for you to discover – and information about the local plant-importers and nursery-owners, as well. Please get in touch if you would like to share yours. At Penwith Local History Group, anything before 1970 is History!

For other references please click here.

The Penwith Papers:

Penwith Local History Group
The Penwith Papers:

Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

Edited by
Sally Corbet

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