Last week I realized that the garden is more than a place of plants we love with names we struggle to remember and pronounce. It is in fact a place that holds the history of civilization—both sacred and secular—in its nomenclature, its etymology. While visiting University of Miami’s Gifford Arboretum, Director Steve Pearson showed me the lovely Ashoka tree, sacred to the Hindu for its beauty and its medicinal fertility properties, and honored by the Buddhists as the tree under which Buddha was born. This month it is festooned in exquisite orange blossoms which smell sweetly when evening falls. No wonder its name means the Sorrow- less Tree.
And speaking of Buddha, did you ever wonder what those large trees are that line the median along Bird Road from Riviera Drive to Red Road. They are the fig ficus religiosa, again sacred in the Hindu and Buddhist religions and the tree under which Buddha gained his enlightenment. They are also known as Bo Trees from the Sanskrit word for wisdom.
And daily I watch my native corkystem passionvine (passiflora subarosa) for signs of caterpillar action—the passion flower acquired its name from Spanish explorers who saw the intricate flower parts as numerically aligned to Jesus’ crucifixion, or passion. I think of my passion vine as a symbol of life and rebirth: the munching of leaves, chrysalis and then butterflies!
And speaking of rebirth you might also remember the ancient Egyptian myth of the phoenix rising to life again from the flames. Did you know that date palms are of the genus phoenix? According to legend, the phoenix built her fiery nest in the palm from which it got her name. And thus began the symbolism of the palm: victory, triumph and eternal life—sacred in Mesopotamia and Egypt, iconic for victory in Greece and ancient Rome, key to the Jewish religious ritual of Sukkot, and of course integral to Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and victory over mortal life. Knowing a plant’s etymology can lead us under Buddha’s tree and into a world of understanding and enlightenment!