April showers bring May flowers, as the saying goes, and the month has long been associated with the bloom of spring and the flowering of youth. A Shakespearean character compared one fair maiden with her cousin, remarking that she "exceedes her as much in beautie, as the first of Maie doth the last of December" ("Much Ado about Nothing" I.i.191-92). The adage "as welcome as flowers in May" had become proverbial by the 17th century, and across the U.S. we Americans refresh and renew our spirits with the greening of our trees and the brilliant burst of spring blossoms.
Ancient Romans clearly shared this romantic vision of the month, as they named it for Maia,goddess of growth. They sacrificed to her every May 1, and began and ended her month with festivals of flowering. The Floralia, running from April 28 through May 3, celebrated the goddess Flora, spirit of blooming, fertility, and youthfulness. In the third century B.C. the state erected a temple to her near the Circus Maximus, the huge Roman chariot-racing track. Besides events in the Circus and other athletic competitions, the week’s festivities featured entertainment orchestrated for the plebeian class, including racy theatrical skits (with nudity), women of low repute performing as gladiators, and maidens frolicking through the streets adorned with garlands and brightly colored dresses. Picture the scene (or watch it on YouTube) in Lerner and Loewe’s "Camelot," where Julie Andrews sings of "The Lusty Month of May," blissfully declaring it the "gorgeous holiday when every maiden prays that her lad will be a cad!"
Later in the month the Romans sponsored a fair for marketing flowers, especially roses (Latin rosae, which gives us ROSary, originally a garden of roses and later the colorful stringed beads used in Catholic ritual). The month’s rose festival, the Rosalia, involved placing flowers on loved ones’ graves, and on May 31 soldiers adorned their military standards with rose garlands. A Greek epigram depicts the personified month of May proclaiming, "I am the Mother of Roses."
The Latin word for flower is flos/floris, giving us FLORa (which along with fauna constitute a region’s plant and animal life), FLORist, FLOURish (a FLOWERing), FLOUR (originally the "flower" or finest part of ground meal), FLEUR-de-lis (the stylized lily seen on many coats of arms and on banners for the New Orleans Saints), and the occasional senescent professor named LaFLEUR. FLORiculture, the cultivation of flowering plants, was big business in the ancient world, where arrangements were purchased for weddings, funerals, and countless other rites, just as they are today. The industry’s classical heritage is reflected in the logo of the FTD (Florists’ Transworld Delivery), the Roman messenger god Mercury racing with winged sandals to deliver the bouquet he grasps in his hand. FTD was founded in the U.S. as "Florists’ Telegraph Delivery" in 1910, back when more folks knew their classical mythology.
Flowers, like all plants and animals too, have been given Latin genus+species names by scientists since the 18th century, following Linnaeus’ system of binomial nomenclature (from bi-/"two" + nomen/"name," as in NOMINate/to name a candidate and NOMINAL/"in name only"). A recent article on the carnivorous purple pitcher plant prompted me to do a bit of research. The plant’s "binome" is Sarracenia purpurea, the genus named for the French-Canadian physician and botanist Michel Sarrazin (1659-1734), who first studied and cataloged its properties, and the species name obviously meaning "purple" — which, by the way, was the so-called "royal purple" favored by senators and other Romans wealthy enough to afford the dye extracted from the shellfish purpura (the cannibalistic murex snail Bolinus brandaris).
In many regions of the country, these purple meat-eaters are blossoming now and dining on savory spiders and flies. Maybe I’ll stick to smelling the roses.
— Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.