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Whose Name Is the Bluebell: Hyakinthos or Endymion?

By Lois Tilton (LTiltonApril 18, 2008
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What is a bluebell? This is not a simple question. Several entirely unrelated flowers are called by this name. But to make things even more complicated, the English Bluebell, otherwise known as the wild Hyacinth, has been tagged with different scientific names that come from different Greek myths. Let's see if we can untangle this mixed-up nomenclature.

Gardening picture

The English, or common Bluebell [sometimes called the Wild Hyacinth1] is a member of the family Hyacinthaceae2, which means "sort of like the hyacinth."

It is easy to see the family resemblance between the common hyacinth and the bluebell, with its pendulous, bell-shaped flowers held more loosely on the raceme. But what is the bluebell's proper scientific name? Well, that's where it gets more complicated. Sometimes it has been called Scilla non-scripta, sometimes Endymion non-scriptus, and sometimes Hyacinthoides non-scripta.

There is no problem about the scientific name of the common, or garden hyacinth, native to the Eastern Mediterranean - Hyacinthus orientalis. So who was Hyacinth, that they named this flower after him?

Hyakinthos, to give him his Greek name, was a beautiful young man from Amyklai, near Sparta, who was loved by the god Apollo. One day, they were throwing a discus and Hyakinthos, trying to catch it, was struck on the head and killed. In his grief, Apollo created a flower from his blood and wrote on its petals the words AI AI - which mean "Woe! Woe!" The problem with this story is, the common hyacinth is not the color of blood, nor does it have anything written on it. In other words, the flower we now call the hyacinth is not the hyacinth flower known to the Greeks.

Now back to the bluebells. The English Bluebell is a native of Britain and Northern Europe and closely related to the Spanish and the Italian bluebells of the south. [But not the unrelated Scottish Bluebell, which is Campanula rotundifolia, otherwise called the Harebell.] The problem is, what name to call them? At various time, by various botanists, they have been placed in the genus Scilla, or Endymion, or Hyacinthoides, which means, in Greek, "related to the hyacinth".

And just to make things even more mixed-up, there are several totally different plants sometimes called Scilla, or Squill, but the name most commonly refers to S siberica, the Siberian Squill, which is also a member of the family Hyacinthaceae. The name seems no longer to be used for the English Bluebell, but sometimes the Spanish Bluebell, also known as the Wood Hyacinth, is also called Scilla - either Scilla hispanica or Scilla campanulata [which means bell-like]. But apparently this got too confusing, so the botanists changed it.

Nowadays, the preferred official name for the bluebell genus seems to be Hyacinthoides, so the English Bluebell is renamed Hyacinthoides non-scripta, the Spanish Bluebell H hispanica, and the Italian Bluebell H italica.

What's with the "non-scripta"? In Latin, this means "not written". The botanists who first named the English Bluebell gave it that name to distinguish it from Hyacinthus orientalis, the common hyacinth, the one that Apollo was supposed to have written on. So the English Bluebell is officially the "flower related to the hyacinth with nothing written on it." In fact, no matter what genus the English Bluebell has been placed in, it is always called by the same species name, "non-scripta", recognizing its relationship to the common hyacinth.

What about Endymion, then? In Greek myth, he was a youth who chose to sleep forever without aging. Some versions of the myth have the moon goddess Selene fall in love with him and every month visit the cave where he slept, thus accounting for the phases of the moon.

So what does this have to do with the bluebells? Well, it isn't really clear. Some writers have suggested that bluebells help promote a dreamless sleep, thus connecting them with the sleeping Endymion. But there is another possible explanation. In Celtic legend the bluebell was known as a fairy flower, and thus dangerous. And there were tales of Celtic heroes, like Merlin and King Arthur, who are still sleeping somewhere in a cave, to awake one day when Britain is in need of them. This sounds very much like the myth of Endymion.

And in this connection it must be noted that the bluebells are toxic, containing glycosides similar in effect to digitalis. Was the reference perhaps to eternal sleep, the sleep of death?

Just in case this is all still confusing, here is a simplified family tree:

Family: Hyacinthaceae

|

Genus:Hyacinthus[Hyacinth]/ Hyacinthoides {or Endymion or Scilla}[Bluebells] /Scilla[Squill]

 

 

 

Hycacinthoides

|

non-scripta{English Bluebell] /hispanica[Spanish Bluebell]/ italica[Italian Bluebell]

 

 

[1]Just to make things even more complicated, the entirely unrelated North American genus Camassia is also called the Wild Hyacinth, but I think they shouldn't do that. It's hard enough to keep these plants straight.

[2]The hyacinths and their relatives were once considered members of the lily famly, but the botanists decided to give them a family of their own.

 

 


  About Lois Tilton  
Retired from writing novels about vampires, I'm turning to parasitic plants and invasive weeds.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
the groundhog ate the bluebells beebe 0 8 Apr 22, 2008 1:16 AM
Bluebells ferncrazy 1 12 Apr 21, 2008 1:55 PM
What is St. Luke's Purple Tree? mamoriah 0 12 Apr 21, 2008 1:47 PM
nice 1AnjL 2 12 Apr 19, 2008 5:38 PM
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