Category Archives: Flora

Daffadillies: Lycidas

And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the Laureat Herse where Lycid lies.

– John Milton, “Lycidas“. 150-151.

With the daffodil, one comes to the end of Milton’s catalog of flowers in Lycidas. The daffodil makes frequent appearances in poetry (Dickinson, Frost, Herrick, Jonson, Shakespeare, Spenser, Wordsworth). It nearly rivals the rose and often tumbles into cliched preciousness. Its abundance in verse will come as no surprise to gardeners–were I to start another spring bulb garden, I’d probably include the poet’s narcissus (Narcissus poeticus). Not for its name, but because it grows so well, multiplies easily, and blooms abundantly. (I also like the shape and color–green-throated, stout yellow tubes, rimmed with orange against a very white background.) However, if Milton had any narcissus at all in mind, it seems unlikely that he would have thought of the N. poeticus. If he did think of N. poeticus, he would not have known it as the “poet’s daffodil.”

Narcissus pseudonarcissus

Narcissus pseudo-narcissus, Redouté, Pierre Joseph, 1759-1840

In Milton’s century, botanists were frustrated with the common name “daffodil.” It seemed, to them, to be misplaced. Derivative of asphodel (“the affodil”), the name seemed a better fit for the genus Asphodelus. But common names are stubborn and Gerard uses “daffodil” throughout his descriptions of Narcissus. He also notes: “The yellow English Daffodil groweth almost everie where through England” (134). Thus, I would bet that Milton meant, if he meant any specific Narcissus, for readers to recall the common daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). These were the flowers, as common as they were, to which botanists hoped that English speakers would limit there use of “daffodil.”

All the same, both the N. poeticus and the N. pseudonarcissus are mismatched to Milton’s somewhat mixed metaphor (part eyeball, part cup) in these lines. Not unlike the Narcissus myth, Milton gives the flower some human properties, specifically the ability to express grief. In the Narcissus story the flower bends its head over a stream to gaze at its own beauty, but in Lycidas the daffodil begins to weep and fills its cup with tears. I have no problem with the weeping, as saccharine as it is, but I see no way to fill its cup with liquid. Bent over, the common yellow daffodil cannot fill its cup with anything. In fact, it is probably bent over in this way to prevent it from flooding with rain water. Tears would merely spill to the ground. Although less bent, N. poeticus with its very short flute would serve similarly as a poor cup for sorrows.

Although not expressing incredulity, Sims is also underwhelmed by Milton’s daffodils:

The daffadillies with their cups full of tears seem to be deliberately anti-climactic to prepare for the sudden recognition of the unreality of all these flowers and of the “frail thoughts” of the poet about them. (89)

I agree with the unreality of the image, but I am less willing to make excuses for Milton. In many respects the poet was writing a faux-pastoral poem and at other times a genuinely pastoral poem. In both cases the young talent was showing us what he could do within and around the genre. He took risks and excelled (a lengthy flower catalog), but sometimes hit a false note (a teary-eyed daffodil).

Gerard, John, and Thomas Johnson. 1975. The herbal: or, General history of plants. New York: Dover Publications.
Sims, James H. “Perdita’s ‘Flowers O’ Th’ Spring’ and ‘Vernal Flowers’ in Lycidas,” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter 1971): 87-90.

[Note: This is the twelfth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas, The Glowing Violet: Lycidas, Musk-rose: Lycidas, Woodbine: Lycidas, Cowslips: Lycidas and Amaranthus: Lycidas.]


We moved this summer, a few miles north to an older house with a larger yard. The work of transporting six people and all their junk to a new location has been, not surprisingly, disruptive. My bicycle commute has tripled (happily for the miles spent in the wind, less so for the lost writing time). Grocery shopping seems, for the moment, more complicated. Everyone’s routine has shifted–showers, laundry, homework locations and personal turf. And, we moved right smack in the middle of the growing season. Thus, I “waited” until this week to plant our fall garden. Lettuces, radishes, spinach and greens are all sweeter in the cool months. So, after a blistering hot summer, I’m hoping for a sunny, but mild fall with a late frost. Given that a large ash tree shades most of the garden, we’ll probably need more than 45 days to have a full harvest. The ash tree will make gardening a challenge next year. I may have to grow sun hungry plants in containers or find a spot in a local community garden. On the other hand, I’ve discovered that shade extends the life of some garden plants. The basil, for example, which I moved in pots to our new location, is sweeter and greener than in past years. Without full exposure to the sun, it has not gone to seed … and so, we have spring-flavored basil in late August.

I have been reading Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” one stanza at a time before falling asleep. At this age, I am neither challenged nor amused by it. I read the second book of the Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, The Tombs of Atuan, in half as much time. In my life, both worlds, Earthsea and the land of quiet Sunday mornings with coffee and elaborate rugs, seem equally distant. I may be due for another reading of Don Quixote soon, or maybe, after the frost, more Coleridge.


Memory might be cultivated with care or it might be left to wither or spread as the seasons and circumstances permit. Most tend to it with some of the former and much of the latter. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the recent force of those weedy incidents from the first decade or so of my life. Many are of no real consequence, but seem to have a lasting force–a fig tree behind a garage in Arkansas, the odor of boxwood at Keeneland, asparagus in the fence rows in Versailles, and chicory in the front pasture of the family farm.

Rooted in my memory, the ephemeral morning blue of the chicory marks a season in which the lettuce beds have also gone to seed. The baby blue with hints of powder and lace open above improbable soil and jangly stems. Until noon they bloom a cool fog in the worst places–exit ramps, new construction, vacant lots. And now, though they flower thirty Junes on in the margins of my urban life, I can turn in the pasture of my childhood and feel the grade of the field, see the locust trees on the ridge, and wince at the mound of dirt where my father buried our favorite mare.

I must remember not to let summer pass without chicory or I would live as a stranger in exile from myself.

Amaranthus: Lycidas

And every flower that sad embroidery wears:
Bid Amaranthus all his beauty shed.

— John Milton, “Lycidas“. 148-149.

Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany

The amarant provides a good study of the-roster-or-the-chicken-or-the-egg problem in language. What came first? The myth, the metaphor, or the word? I speculate that the word, amarant, did not come first, but perhaps it came second. With its roots in Greek, the word means not-fading, incorruptible, or (as is said of many plants with long-lasting floral displays) “everlasting.” The modern, widely distributed genus, Amaranthus, is indeed an “everlasting” flower–although not truly “incorruptible,” it is also a vegetable and a pseudograin, but these facts are less to the point.

Amarant appears in two very old, very well-known texts. First, in Aesop’s fables (The rose and the amaranth, 6 BC) and later in the New Testament–although, as a word and not as a plant (1 Peter 5:4, about 100 AD, give or take a few decades). In both cases, the word refers to an everlasting, floral display of beauty. In Aesop, it possesses a persona and so begins its journey as myth; in the New Testament it serves metaphorically, but waits for Clement of Alexandria and others (like Milton) to plant it firmly in soil of Christian symbol and allegory. Having encountered its literary type long before finding the plant in a garden (if ever), many editors and annotators assume that the plant was first imagined and later given as a name to the genus. While it is true that Aesop precedes all Linnaean names for plants, I found no evidence to disprove that Aesop may have known an actual plant (possibly an amarant) which he contrasted favorably with the fading rose. After all, no one suggests that Aesop did not mean the rose of genus Rosa–i.e., no one would propose that Aesop meant an imaginary plant for great beauty that he just happened to name “rose.” Why should we not assume that Aesop had an amarant somewhere in gardens of his daily life? It is for this reason that I would guess that somewhere, many, many years before Aesop, people saw a plant, realized that its flowers were long-lasting, and named it “amarant.” Thus, the metaphor would have been first (this plant is like something that never fades), and the word second (let’s call it “amarant”) and the myth third (so, there’s this plant which is named “amarant,” and long, long ago in fable-land the amarant said to the rose …).

Milton muddles the matter with an inventive conceit in his great poem:

                                                                          [L]owly reverent
Towards either Throne they bow, and to the ground
With solemn adoration down they cast
Thir Crowns inwove with Amarant and Gold,
Immortal Amarant, a Flour which once
In Paradise, fast by the Tree of Life
Began to bloom, but soon for mans offence
To Heav’n remov’d where first it grew, there grows,
And flours aloft shading the Fount of Life,
And where the river of Bliss through midst of Heavn
Rowls o’re Elisian Flours her Amber stream;
With these that never fade the Spirits elect
Bind thir resplendent locks inwreath’d with beams. —Paradise Lost, III:349-61.

Russell M. Hillier makes a good case for the influence of Clement of Alexandria’s Paedogogus on this passage of Milton’s most famous poem. Milton places the plant (as does 1 Peter) in heaven; it adorns the crowns of the angels–but he also tells us why the flower is found in heaven and (presumably) not on earth. As it is “incorruptible,” it was transplanted from garden of Eden after the fall of Adam and Eve. In other words, after the fall, the earth was no place for a flower of everlasting beauty. Perhaps Milton knew an Amaranthus plant by a different name, but he does seem to assume that it was first a myth. Were Milton to find the plant in our gardens and whole-food stores, he would assure us that is was wrongly named.

In “Lycidas,” Milton uses the amarant with even less clarity. He calls for the everlasting flower to shed its beauty upon the hearse of his deceased friend, Edward King. Did Milton mean that the flowers would be everlastingly beautiful on the casket, even though departed from the plant? Did Milton intend that the amarant should humble itself at such an event of grief and loss … in other words, foreshadowing the conceit in Paradise Lost–a world without Edward King is no place for an incorruptible beauty? Of the two, the first seems more likely to me. Perhaps Milton hoped to send King to his imagined grave with the ornaments he might use to attire his heavenly crown or perhaps he meant to confirm the deceased’s salvation while also making a gesture toward the young man’s “immortality” in verse.

Whatever the case, I find the amaranth to be an ugly plant–especially the ornamental Love-lies-bleeding. On the plate, however, it is very interesting. The seeds are earthy and sweet, while the greens have just a bit of peppery bite. Last summer a local co-op farm grew a small crop, I hope they expect a larger harvest this year. In all its ugliness, the genus Amaranthus (even spiny pigweed) should out last Milton–a world without Milton would be a dire place; a world without an Amaranthus would be a dead place.

Hillier, Russell M. 2007. “To Say it with Flowers: Milton’s ‘Immortal Amarant’ Reconsidered (Paradise Lost, III.349–61).” Notes and Queries 54 (4) (December 1): 404 -408.

[Note: This is the eleventh post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas, The Glowing Violet: Lycidas, Musk-rose: Lycidas, Woodbine: Lycidas and Cowslips: Lycidas.]

Cowslips: Lycidas

“With Cowslips wan that hang the pensive hed,” John Milton, Lycidas. Ln. 147

Masaccio's "The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden"

With the addition of cowslips (Primula veris), Milton’s flower catalog parts from his Shakespearean sources, Oberon and Perdita. It’s not his first departure and (as was the first, the “crow-toe”) it is not an unwelcome one. Oberon’s flowers, which perfume Titania’s bower, include the oxlip (also a Primula). Milton might have used the oxlip, but its form is too close to its other cousin, the primrose. Edward King’s imagined mourners, therefore, would have adorned the casket with two flowers which (from their blooms alone) would have been nearly indistinguishable. Cowslips, on the other hand, are as Milton describes them, pendant, flower heads hung (not unlike the crow-toe) in a way that mirrors our own physical expressions of grief. (The grieved forms and “wan” faces of Adam and Eve in Masaccio’s The Expulsion and in William Blake’s The Expulsion come to mind.) In short, cowslips (which have always been more plentiful than oxlips) are a more fitting flower to be tossed on the dead poet’s hearse.

Curiously, however, Milton’s readers (if not Milton himself) had lost the flower’s baser etymology. The word “cowslip” has nothing to do with cattle slips or lips … nor slips, nor lips of any kind. The cowslip might be better named “cowslop”. Unlike the primrose, which prefers the shade, the cowslip grows in open pasture. Therefore, its gatherers (herbalists and cooks, when out “cowslipping”) would need to traverse paddy strewn fields. Cow manure comes with a lot of moisture (slop) and nutrients (instant mulch) and one might nearly expect to find healthy plants nearby. Fortunately, for Milton, cowslip had lost its slop … but, it would have been an altogether other-world had Milton honored the deceased with a rich pile of crows feet and a heap of manure.

[Note: This is the tenth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas, The Glowing Violet: Lycidas, Musk-rose: Lycidas and Woodbine: Lycidas.]


Somewhere on one of my short runs through the city of Indianapolis I saw a single bagworm sack hanging from the limb of a small, street side, deciduous tree. Was it a maple tree? A pear? Maybe a ginkgo or tulip? I’m not sure. It was a brief image as I passed by on a wintry run. I see it very clearly now, in memory, but I have no idea where it is. I often run out from my office or home in a more or less straight path for two or three miles, but make my way back in a series of dog-leg turns. The little sack, if it’s still dangling from its limb in the wind and ice and snow, could be anywhere on either side of the street for roughly twenty miles of running routes. I doubt I will ever see it again. A woodpecker or crow will likely find it first.

The bagworm hangs suspended in my disjointed memory with tenacity. It does so, in part, because it belongs more in my memory than it does in an urban landscaping tree. Were I a child again in rural Kentucky, I could find hundreds of these in cedar thickets and fence rows. I see them now at eye level, practically in the face, as I tracked various critters through day old snow.

The evergreen bagworm (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) in winter is a prickly sack of leather encasing the dead body of a mouthless, headless, wingless, legless female moth. And inside her body, itself really just a sack, the shiny little eggs, tapioca pearls, wait for spring. Most home owners with manicured evergreens will consider the moth to be a pest; it is voracious and unsightly. We trimmed them off our cedar Christmas trees with pruning shears. The gut strings of their bags are so tough that they can girdle a small limb … and in a season or two, choke it out to brown.

Here in Indianapolis, recent winters have been mild. The moth is increasing its northern range. In twenty years of living north of the Ohio River, this is the first evergreen bagworm that I have seen. I am sure that there have been many others, especially in the southern part of Indiana, but I have missed them. This December has been cold. If the coming months are colder, the moth may retreat a season or two to the south. What little, aimless sense I have of home follows.

Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis

Woodbine: Lycidas

“The Musk-rose, and the well attir’d Woodbine” John Milton, Lycidas. Ln. 146.

The flowers of Milton

Jane Elizabeth Giraud. The Flowers of Milton. 1846.

The woodbine might have been well attired and, for a fairy’s bower, well attiring, but it was not well imagined as strewn across Edward King’s laureate hearse. Here, I think, Milton let poetic convention (the weight of an echoed Shakespeare) write a sloppy, unthinking image. Shakespeare, too, is part of the confusion. His “woodbine”, however, is better placed; it grows as it should, vined into a canopy, held aloft by the magical forest, by an unseen trellis, perfuming the stage for Titania’s dreams:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Act 2, Scene 1. Lines 254-8)

But is it “honeysuckle” that Shakespeare intends? Two acts later, in the same play, he wrote:

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.

(Act 2, Scene 1. Lines 41-3)

Many have taken line 41 as evidence that Shakespeare meant two plants–one a woodbine, another a honeysuckle. It seems just as likely to me that the poet was repeating or clarifying his reference to a single plant. In another world he might have written, for example: “the prickly pear, the Opuntia cactus” or “the tiger, the Siberian tiger”. I do not think it matters, here, what specific plant the bard did or did not have in mind. He imagined a vine, one with love-scented flowers hung from the ceiling of this forest boudoir. Nonetheless, I vote for honeysuckle.

Though murkier in his intentions, Milton too may not have needed a specific flower for this line. Any woodbine would rhyme. Furthermore, he probably would have known more than one plant with this name. On this point, McHenry cites the OED when asserting: “Woodbine in Milton’s time basically meant any climbing plant, including ivy” (101). It seems unlikely, however, that Milton was thinking of what it would mean to toss these “well attir’d” vines on his friend’s casket. Whether by “woodbine” he meant honeysuckle, clematis, or convolvulus does not matter. I can hear the tangled mass of foliage slapping down in an awkward woody heap; one that would likely crush the delicate blossoms that preceded it: primrose, crow-toe, jasmine, pink, pansy, violet and musk-rose.

Perhaps Milton too easily applied a well-metered and rhymed woodbine to his elegy. Perhaps readers were meant only to recall the plant’s sweet odor and its weeping habit. In any event, but for the most dogmatic florists, few readers will trip on these well-attired vines, these three feet at the end of one line in a great poem.


McHenry, James Patrick. 1996. A Milton Herbal. Milton Quarterly 30, no. 2: 45-110.

[Note: This is the ninth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas, The Glowing Violet: Lycidas and Musk-rose: Lycidas.]