When it comes to this time of year, much as with Christmas, symbolism and imagery play a major part in the festivities. For example, there is the symbol of rebirth and renewal – the egg – as well as mainstays of the Christian and Jewish holidays of Easter and Passover, like the cross or Maror and Chazeret (bitter herbs). In a more horticultural sense, there are also flowers associated with this season, such as the lilies, daisies, violets, tulips, and hyacinths; however, there is a particular (and sometimes overlooked) flower that actually carries the name of the season.
Unassuming (to our ears) it’s called the pasque flower, but there’s a lot in that name. Originally coming from the Middle French passefleur, with pass- meaning ‘something that exceeds or surpasses’ and fleur meaning ‘flower’, the basic understanding of our term can be taken to literally mean ‘a flower that surpasses others’. On the other hand, due to its blooming around the same time as the Easter and Passover observances, the name of the flower was also slightly altered by referring to it with the name of Easter in Greek and Latin, Pascha, as well as the name of Passover in Hebrew, Pesach. So, essentially, by name, it is the quintessential Easter flower.
We can see the first usage in English of the term in Henry Lyte’s translation of Rembert Dodoens’ 1578 work, A Niewe Herball, or Historie of Plantes, where he translates the phrase, “Passeflower or the first Anemone, hath leaves like Coriander.” Relative to the aforementioned holidays, the first usage occurred a mere 20 years later, with John Gerard’s 1597 writing of The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes stating that: “They flower for the most part about Easter, which hath moved me to name it Pasque flower, or Easter flower.” Regardless of the sort-of combined etymology, the dual usage didn’t last long: the last major mention of passeflower was in Edward Phillips’ The New World of English Words in 1658 (“Passe-flower, a certain kind of flower, otherwise called Pulsatil.”).
Taking a loot at the plant itself, which is part of the genus Pulsatilla, this prairie and meadow-growing perennial produces (typically) purple bell-shaped flowers covered externally with fine silky hairs, and can be found in North America, Europe, and Asia. Ironically, though pasque flower is associated with holidays regarding rebirth and renewal, the plant itself is highly toxic, producing cardiogenic toxins and oxytocins; in spite of this, extracts from the plant can be used to treat reproductive problems, as a sedative, or in the creation of homeopathic remedies.
While the symbolism of these flowers’ blooming around the holy days is the key link to their name, perhaps it goes a bit deeper. Looking at the plant as well as its typical purple flower colour and taking into consideration John Parkinson who mentions: “The yellow Pasque flower… Red Pasque flower… White Pasque flower.” in his 1629 book A Garden of All Sorts of Pleasant Flowers (Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris), perhaps it’s worth assessing the Biblical meaning of the colours involved: the green perennial represents resurrection, and, in the case of the flowers, red is associated with flesh, yellow with purification, white with light, righteousness, and victory, and, finally, purple is the combination of red (flesh) and blue (the word of God).
That’s quite an apt assessment of the season from a plant with 2 names.