Common Name: Wood Anemone, Windflower, Five-leaved Anemone, Mayflower, Wood-flower, Nightcaps, Nimbleweed, Wild Cucumber – Anemone is the name of the genus to which the flower is taxonomically assigned. It is further described by the adjective ‘wood’ in reference to its primary habitat in temperate zone forested regions.
Scientific Name: Anemone quinquefolia – The generic name Anemone has an ambiguous etymology. It is derived from a Greek word which may come from either the word anemos, which means ‘influenced by the wind’ or from a word of older Semitic origin similar to the Hebrew word Na’aman, which is an epithet for the god Adonis. The species name means five-leaved in Latin.
Potpourri: The Wood Anemone is one of about 25 species of the Anemone genus that that are indigenous to North America; there are more than 100 species worldwide, primarily in the colder temperate regions. It is characterized by a single blossom on a long, relatively fragile stem with five petal-like sepals (sepals are part of the calyx at the base of the flower and not the corolla of the flower), numerous projecting stamens and pistils and five leaves (the Latin quinque folia). The flower is perfect, which means that it is self-pollenating, a factor that is of some importance to its survival strategy in using the wind to promote reproduction.
Windflower is an appropriate common name for the wood anemone in a metaphorical sense. One traditional explanation is that the flowers only open when the wind blows, or, alternatively, that the flower trembles with even the slightest breeze – the long, slender stem of the flower readily bends under gusty and turbulent conditions where an overly rigid stem would fracture. It is therefore an indicator of the wind and hence a windflower. However, the name windflower is also appropriate from a practical sense – the wood anemone is most often found in exposed areas so it is reasonable to presume that there is an important Aeolian environmental factor. The wind’s induced vibrations dislodge the pollen from the anthers for deposit onto the adjacent pistils to initiate the reproductive cycle of the perfect flower. A preference for wind-pollination is also suggested by the early spring emergence of the flower in advance of any significant insect presence. The absence of a discernible scent and the dearth of attractive nectar are additional factors militating against animal-assisted reproduction; pollinators are not interested. An alternative explanation for the windflower name is that it derives directly from the Greek word anemos, but that is probably either too simple or too coincidental – the name Anemone likely has a much more complex etymology rooted in the mythological beliefs prevalent early in the period of recorded human history.
Red anemone flowers were well known to the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia, as they were prolific in the temperate woodlands that were then prevalent. The Phoenicians were among the earliest recognized Semitic peoples of this region – they ultimately extended their culture throughout the Mediterranean Basin; their primary colonial outpost was Carthage. Little is known of their gods save that Baal was the supreme ruler of the inhabitants (the noted Carthaginian general was named Hannibal which means ’joy of Baal’), Astarte was primarily but not universally a fertility goddess, and Adonis was an agricultural divinity who was celebrated in cult adoration throughout Phoenicia; his name derives from the Hellenized Semitic word adoni meaning ‘my lord and master.’ He was alleged to have been an extraordinarily handsome youth – so much so that the term Adonis is still used to indicate an attractive male. When the Greek and Phoenician cultures intermingled late in the first millennium BCE, the mythologies evolved. The Phoenician Astarte became the Hellenized Aphrodite who fell in love with the comely Adonis, whose subsequent tragic and savage death is the provenance of the story of the anemone.
The affection that Aphrodite held for Adonis is described by the Roman historian Ovid in the classic Metamorphosis: “She shunned heaven too: to heaven she preferred Adonis. Him she clung to, he was her constant companion.” Fearing for his safety, she warned him against rash acts against the beasts of the forest, “but his bold heart rebuffed her warning words.” He came upon a boar and “ speared it – a slanting hit – and quick with its curved snout the savage beast dislodged the bloody point, and charged Adonis as he ran in fear for safety, and sank its tusks deep in his groin and stretched him dying on the yellow sand.” When Aphrodite heard his groans, she returned and “saw him lifeless, writhing in his blood, she rent her garments, tore her lovely hair, and bitterly beat her breast.” As a means of memorializing the fallen, beloved Adonis, she avowed that his blood would be changed into a flower “and with these words she sprinkled nectar [the drink of the gods], sweet-scented, on his blood, which at the touch swelled up, as on a pond when showers fall clear bubbles form; and ere an hour had passed a blood-red flower arose, like the rich bloom of pomegranates which in a stubborn rind conceal their seeds; yet is its beauty brief, so lightly cling it petals, fall so soon, when the winds blow that give the flower [anemone] its name.” The association of the anemone with the god Adonis and with the wind is, according to Ovid, essentially the same; the mythological tale tells of the windblown flower that is Adonis anthropomorphized in his ephemeral beauty.
The death of Adonis in Greek mythology has parallels in other cultural traditions, though there is no apparent direct relationship. In the flower symbolism that is an important part of Chinese culture, the anemone is associated with death and is accordingly planted on graves. To the Egyptians, anemone flowers were associated with sickness, a belief that may have influenced the Romans, who picked the first anemone of the season as a talisman to ward off fevers and other maladies; this included tying the plucked blossom around an invalid’s neck . In the superstitious Dark Ages that succeeded the Pax Romana, the knowledge that there was something special about the anemone was retained, though the practice of picking them was transmogrified into a fear of the vapors that emanated from them. The inimitable early Christians, ever the purveyors of extant mythologies recast as sectarian phenomena, maintained that the red anemone originated from the drops of Christ’s blood that fell at Golgotha. This is certainly no less plausible than the Adonis-Aphrodite provenance.
The pervasive association of anemone flowers with mostly malevolent effects ranging from chthonic vapors to illness and death may be due to the fact that the anemones, like many of the plants of the Buttercup Family (Ranunculaceae), cause erythema (reddening) and vesication (blistering) of the skin. The chemical to which this response is attributed is named, appropriately enough, anemonin which was associated with a glycoside precursor named ranunculin in a seminal 1951 scientific study undertaken at the University of Cambridge in England. The knowledge of these effects over the course of history resulted in the various anemones being used in the treatment of a wide range of medical conditions that may or may not have had any appreciable ameliorative effect. Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE), asserted that the anemone was generally good for treating ailments of the head; chewing the root of the plant to relieve a toothache and applying a decoction of the leaves to alleviate inflammation of the eyes. The English herbalist Nicholas Culpepper (1616 – 1654), aware of Pliny’s prescription, wrote that ‘the leaves … being boiled and the decoction drank. The body being bathed with the decoction of them, cures the leprosy: the leaves being stamped, and the juice snuffed up the nose, purgeth the head mightily; so doth the root, being chewed in the mouth, for it procureth much spitting, and bringeth away many watery and phlegmatic humors, and is therefore excellent for the lethargy.’ Processed anemone flowers are marketed to this day as herbal treatments for everything from indigestion to measles.