My dad grew anemones in our backyard when I was a teenager. The flowers came up past his waist and took over the garden like a miniature cornfield, blooming out in reds, pinks, oranges, and yellows. One summer, I took a picture of my dad standing in front of them, holding a long anemone stalk across his chest and smiling. I decided anemones were my favorite flower. Years later, after my father had died, I looked them up in a book of flower meanings and found they meant “forsaken.”
In mythology, Anemone — Greek for “daughter of the wind” — is a beautiful nymph who got caught up in a love tangle. As one story goes, the wind god Zephyr and Anemone fell in love, but when his wife, Chloris (or Flora, to the Romans), found out, she banished the nymph from their court and turned her into a flower. Zephyr then lost interest in Anemone, but another wind god, Boreas, fell in love with her in her flower form. He tried to woo her, but Anemone wasn’t interested, so every spring he angrily blows open her petals, fading them prematurely. In the myth, Anemone is ostensibly the one who’s been forsaken, but who is forsaking whom seems to be a matter of perspective.
Another myth has anemones springing up from where Venus wept over the body of Adonis as he lay bleeding to death from a boar wound. In Shakespeare’s poem “Venus and Adonis,” Venus is so heartbroken by Adonis’ death that she curses love itself — the realm over which she has dominion — to be forever entwined with sorrow, jealousy, and deceit: “That all love’s pleasure shall not match [its] woe.” Afterward, Adonis’ body “melted like a vapour,” leaving behind a scattering of blood-red flowers. (Variations on the myth have anemones turning red from the drops of his blood.)
A few years after that summer with the anemones, my dad and stepmother split up; after that, the house was sold. A few years later, my stepmother died, and a few years after that, my dad died, too.
I’m not really suggesting the anemones had anything to do with this, but sometimes things seem so arbitrary and uncontrollable that occasionally it’s tempting to think, why not, maybe it was the flowers.
Anemones’ ominousness seems to have cut across cultures. In Egypt and Persia, anemones were thought of as emblems of sickness, while the Chinese called them the “flower of death.” In the Middle East, they were believed to be not just symbols, but actual carriers of disease. An early European custom was to run past fields of anemones, “for country folk felt that even the air was poisoned from these flowers” (via Laura C. Martin’s Garden Flower Folklore).
Elsewhere, anemones were associated with illness, but on the healing end: Romans picked anemones to protect against fever, and early Britons carried anemones as charms against the plague. In England, their musty smell earned anemones the nickname “smell fox.” According to an old English ballad (via Elizabeth Silverthorne’s Legends and Lore of Texas Wildflowers), “The first spring-blown anemone she in his doublet wove / To keep him safe from pestilence wherever he should rove.”
I told my mom I was writing about anemones, and on her recommendation I went to visit some in bloom at a public garden in Maine, near where we were vacationing. They were beautiful, growing up spare and wiry but elegant, pale purple. They reminded me of long-necked baby dragons waiting to be fed. There’s something naked, minimalist, and hungry about certain kinds of anemones, like they’ve undressed a step too far, thrown out too many of their possessions, or lost a little too much weight.
There are about 200 anemone species, and the ones at the garden were called Anemone vitifolia “Robustissima,” or the grapeleaf anemone (or the Japanese anemone, or the autumn windflower). Japanese anemones are known for their autumn blooms, which “stand out as harbingers to summer’s end, welcoming shorter days and cooler weather” (per the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plant Evaluation Notes of 2004).
They’re not the ones my dad grew. I recently found the photograph from that summer 20 years ago, and while it’s basically what I remembered, the anemones don’t seem to have dark centers, which is what I thought I liked about them in the first place. And the anemones in the picture are taller than I thought possible — some appear to come up past my dad’s head. His smile is different, too: The one I remember capturing had struck me as unfamiliar and unsettling at the time, but now it seems normal, and I can’t imagine why I found it strange, other than I must have been uncomfortable with its vulnerability.
Maybe, then, anemones are less about forsakenness and more of a touchstone for fear — fear of vulnerability, fear of losing control, fear of heartbreak. Or, more optimistically, maybe they’re meant to represent what’s beautiful in this life: a reminder to stay alive and available for the ride, regardless of how it might end.