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New York, New York

Photograph by Andrew Dallos

Persephone in the Park

Spring is popping up all around New York City, but those crocuses have a dark history. Explaining the Pagan past of what’s growing on 87th Street.

A botanist friend in the neighborhood sent an email yesterday: “Park is glorious! Snowdrops along the 87th Street pass, hellebores right near the snowdrops, and crocuses to the left of the bathrooms!”

The “seasonal” aisles at the drugstores and supermarkets are full of bunnies and chickies and marshmallow Peeps, but hold on a sec. What’s really going on, even in sedate Yorkville, is the same set of cyclical mysteries that have long inspired humans to imagine fertility goddesses and creation myths. Things are emerging, unfolding, returning, an assertion of a life force undiverted by transient fancies like cities. Pagan rituals have always appealed to me, their persistence through layers of cultural accretion: pumpkins in October, fir trees in December, arrow-pierced hearts and painted eggs. This week, as the perennials push their way up through the dead leaves in Carl Schurz Park, the neighborhood feels downright witchy.

Flowers are pagan, older than Abraham, layered with folklore and etymology, medicine and myth. The Victorians coded each blossom with mawkish sentiment—Kate Greenaway’s “The Language of Flowers” lists yellow roses for jealousy, white daisies for innocence—but what lies beneath those frilly feelings is odder, darker, and more powerful.

There is indeed a clump of snowdrops at 87th Street. (I’m trying not to associate the fertility of that spot with the aforementioned bathrooms.) Galanthus nivalis, “milky white” and “of-the-snow,” is a flower with three tapered lobes, hanging its head demurely. Tilt one up, and a heart of green shows itself in the center of the snowy whiteness. Snowdrops are the Fair Maids of February, also known as Candlemas bells—Candlemas being the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, celebrated on Feb. 2. Some British churches remove the statue of the Virgin at Candlemas and scatter snowdrops in its place, linking Mary to Persephone, a more ancient maiden whose springtime return from the underworld is heralded with flowers.

Candlemas coincides with the pre-Celtic festival of Imbolc, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, when the ewes are pregnant. It is a cusp between death and life, fragile hope flowering in the snow. “If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, winter shall have another bite. If Candlemas Day brings clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again,” an English proverb declares. (We Americans, of course, have ceded the responsibility for the forecast on that date to a groundhog in Pennsylvania.) The snowdrops at 87th Street nodded gently in the breeze this afternoon—one of those mild early-March days when you suddenly notice pregnant women everywhere, because they have unbuttoned their coats.

The hellebore is my antidote to the pastel perkiness of the season. I like how it lurks, inexplicably creepy, hiding its face.The dusty-pink flowers of the hellebore droop like the snowdrops, but its modesty is false. Unlike the pert green shoots of the bulbs, its leaves are tousled, as if it has woken from its winter’s sleep with bad hair. Hellebores come in a spectrum of colors. One winter-blooming pale-pink-and-white variety is called Christmas rose: a shepherd girl, weeping because she had nothing to offer the newborn Christ, attracted the attention of a sympathetic angel, who revealed the flower where her tears had fallen. But this particular specimen is no blushing virgin. Its petals (sepals, technically) are veined, green-tinged, leathery. They make me think of dragon wings, arresting and faintly menacing.

Hellebore, from the Greek for “injure” and “food,” is poisonous and feared in folklore along with hemlock, nightshade, and aconite. In the 6th century B.C., the League of Delphi attacked the fortified city of Kirrha, poisoning the city’s water supply with crushed hellebore leaves, whereupon diarrhea besieged the defenders from within—an early act of chemical warfare. The mythological seer Melampus was summoned by the king of Argos when his three royal daughters suddenly shed their clothes and ran naked through the streets, mooing like cows, bewitched by Dionysus. Melampus brewed a potion of hellebore and restored the princesses to sanity, thereby winning one of them to wed. Perhaps the plant’s purgative properties expelled the lingering influence of the god of wine.

The hellebore is my antidote to the pastel perkiness of the season. I like how it lurks, inexplicably creepy, hiding its face: a minor note beneath the cheerful trilling of the cardinals.

To the left of the bathrooms, as promised, some early crocuses have bloomed, purple and gold, startlingly rich against the grays and browns. They seem to warm the air around them. Zeus and Hera kindled crocuses from the earth beneath them with the passion of their lovemaking. The cultivation of crocuses for fire-hued saffron dates back to the Bronze Age. The precious stamens, painstakingly picked and dried, were prized as dye, perfume, and as a remedy for melancholy. Cleopatra laced her bath with saffron as an aphrodisiac. Buddhist monks have dyed their robes with it for millennia. It takes up to 75,000 flowers to yield a pound of saffron threads, worth about $1,000 today; during the Middle Ages saffron was so valuable those caught adulterating it could be executed. When German Protestants brought crocuses to the New World in the 1730s, the saffron they produced was listed on the Philadelphia stock exchange at a price equal to gold.

Krokos, like his brothers-in-myth Narcissus and Hyacinthus, was a beautiful boy, loved in one version by the nymph Smilax, in another by the messenger god Hermes. Neither tale ends well, but Krokos’s grace is preserved in the flower that bears his name. Persephone was picking purple crocuses with her maidens when Hades abducted her, provoking Demeter’s depthless grief and bringing on the first winter. Nothing could bloom as long as her daughter remained below. When at last Zeus prevailed upon Hades to let Persephone go, golden crocuses sprang from her joyful footsteps, breaking through the snow.

The snow is gone from Carl Schurz Park, but Persephone is walking there, and tomorrow there will be more crocuses. In ancient Greece the powerful cult of Persephone and Demeter was embodied in the Eleusinian Mysteries, which celebrated Persephone’s return each year. Their secrets are lost. But the original mystery, even in a manicured corner of Manhattan, persists.