Many plants have gained their names from the role they played in religion; some are seen as a symbol for the changing of a season. They have been attributed magical as well as healing powers and in the past people decorated their houses and castles to eliminate evil spirits.
This flower - the Asphodel - is also known in Greek folklore as Sferdoukli and in Athens, Spiridoukli. To the ancients, it meant “king’s spear”. A perennial, it has appeared early this year - during the month of February - because we have had such a mild winter, and usually can be seen until around the beginning of April. Although it is a beautiful flower, it smells very bad! The first time I saw it, it made quite an impression on me, because we don’t have it in Holland, Germany or Scandinavia.
A member of the Lilaceae (lily) family, the Asphodel has a long, straight stem with leaves that grow close to the ground. The star-shaped flowers - white to slightly pink - climb slowly up one-by-one to the top of the stem. A yellow Asphodel (Asphodeline) also exists, but is very rare. This plant grows in the Mediterranean region (and also in India) near to the beach and in the fields, including grazing areas, as animals won’t touch it. It can grow from 80cm to 1m 30cm in height. The plant is rich in starch and Theophrastos discovered that several parts are edible - the stem is very tasty when fried and the seeds can be roasted. Dioscorides compiled a list of potential medicinal uses for the plant.
According to Apostolos, a Greek man from my village, in those places where many flowers are clustered together, snakes come during the night and drink the milk from the stem.
The Asphodel was sacred to Persephone and is associated in myth and legend with the fields of the dead. It is sometimes planted on graves because it is said that “the roots know the language of the spirit of the dead”.
I wish my readers a sunny March.
Ed: See opposite page for a short article about the ancient Greeks Theophrastos and Dioscorides who feature often in this column.