During the Middle Ages, the faithful saw reminders of Mary, the Mother of God, in the flowers and herbs growing around them. Violets were symbols of her humility, lilies her purity and roses her glory. They called her “Flower of Flowers,” and named plants after her. Marigolds were Mary’s Gold, clematis was the Virgin’s Bower and lavender was Our Lady’s Drying Plant.
Devoted to Mary, people decorated her altars with flowers on her feast days. Poets and popes praised her in hymns, as in this 15th-century Ave Maria: Heil be thou, Marie, that aff flour of all
As roose in eerbir so reed.
In the last century, prior to the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960’s, the faithful also honored Mary with flowers. May crownings were the tradition in Catholic schools during Mary’s month (May), and makeshift home altars bearing an image of Mary were decorated with the choicest home-grown blossoms.
Those traditions have almost disappeared, but the medieval custom of finding reminders of Mary’s attributes, glory and sorrows in flowers and herbs has left a legacy that can enrich our lives in this millennium.
In medieval times, legends about flowers and herbs, some of them dating from the first century, were used to instruct the faithful as well as entertain them. Those legends, as well as the Mary names of flowers, can still inform and delight us.
Reflecting on the flower names, we can honor Mary and find relevance for our own lives. We model Mary’s humility as we gaze upon the humble violet, sing her praises with petunias and share her sorrows as we behold the purple blossoms and sword-like leaves of the blue flag iris.
Flower and herb legends tell us about important moments in Mary’s life. The Madonna Lily was carried by the Angel Gabriel when he visited Mary to tell her God had chosen her to be the mother of the Savior. Our Lady’s Bedstraw, Holy Hay and other herbs became radiant in the humble manger where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Carnations and the Christmas Rose bloomed on that night.
More than 30 flowers and herbs bear legends about Mary’s life. Many of the plants can be easily grown in your own Mary Garden, a garden dedicated to Mary and containing her image and plants associated with her by name or legend. They are found in Mary Gardens throughout the world, should you want to make a pilgrimage in Mary’s honor. The legends and reflections which follow can take us, in spirit and in our hearts, on a virtual journey with Mary.
Aquilegia vulgaris. Our Lady’s Shoes.
Columbine is said to have sprung up wherever Mary’s foot touched the earth when she was on her way to visit her cousin, Elizabeth.
The spurred flower resembles a little dove and came to symbolize the Holy Spirit. In England doves were used to decorate the altar in Whitsun Week, the week following Pentecost Sunday, as the faithful made a connection between the dove, the Holy Spirit and Our Lady’s Flower, the name they had given the columbine.
Mary, how many miles you walked upon this earth! Your grace-filled being brought the Son of Man close to us. Have we ever thanked you for the role you played? Let us follow your footprints; even better, teach us to walk in your shoes.
Chrysanthemum leucanthemum. Mary’s Star.
On the night that Jesus was born, the Magi, praying on a mountainside, saw a star appear in the form of a fair child. The child told them to go to Jerusalem, where they would find a newborn child.
When the Wise Men, following the star, reached the village of Bethlehem, they looked for a further sign. Suddenly King Melchior saw a strange white and gold flower that looked like the star that had led them to Bethlehem. As he bent to pick it, the door of a stable opened and he saw the Holy Family.
A mystery play called Office of the Star, a pageant about the Magi’s visit on the Feast of the Epiphany, began as part of the liturgical service in the 11th century, probably in France. Later it was replaced by Feast of the Star, performed partly in church and partly outdoors.
Things, persons and events are prophets pointing the way to God; they are priests and people praising God. Did you learn, Mary, to discern God’s graces long before Bethlehem and the coming of your child? If only I could share your wisdom, as did the Wise Men who knelt down before the child in your arms.
Juniperis. The Madonna’s Juniper Bush.
In Sicily, it is told that the juniper bush saved the life of Mary and the infant Jesus during their flight into Egypt. As the soldiers pursued them, the Holy Family hastened through fields of peas and flax and thickets of various shrubs. A juniper bush growing nearby opened up its thick branches to enclose the Holy Family, hiding them until Herod’s men had left. The inside of the large bush became a soft bed, sheltering the fleeing family, while needles on the outside branches grew prickly as spears. Herod’s soldiers could not penetrate the spiky branches of the juniper and passed the family by.
The juniper mentioned in the Bible is thought to be Genista raetum, called White Broom or Juniper Bush in Palestine, which produces a scraggly plant not casting much shade. The common juniper is mentioned in the first European herbal, De Materia Medica, by a first-century Greek physician named Dioscorides. In the Middle Ages it was used in gardens with other scented herbs.
Our garden of life includes blessing and despair. We marvel that the two can go hand in hand. Just as we note the splendor of our gardens, we also note the toil and sweat it takes over the years to establish a good garden. Egypt worked hard to make a land where junipers can thrive. Mary, you, Joseph and the child would live there for a while. Sometimes I wonder how you mastered life in the desert. Teach me.
Fuchsia magellanica and hybrida. Our Lady’s Ear-drop.
The gently drooping flowers resemble ear-drops or pendant earrings. It is told that Jesus may have playfully hung flower jewels of ruby and amethyst colors on his mother’s ears.
In Devonshire, England, the old folks said Our Lady’s Ear-drop was the only name they had ever known for the flower. It is said that their forefathers, on first seeing the flowers and noticing how they resembled ear-drops, named them in Mary’s honor. It may be that pious persons named the blossoms Our Lady’s Ear-drops as their way of paying tribute to Mary, who through her ears “heard the word of God, and kept it.”
A baby’s fascinated play—tugging at his mother’s ear, exploring ears, mouth, nose and the softness of her skin—brings a smile to those who watch. Lovers, even little ones like this child, deck the beloved with lovely things, tuck flowers in her hair, make wreaths to bring her joy. Mary, nourish my love for you and Jesus.
Lily of the Valley
Convalleria majalis. Mary’s Tears.
It was said that when Mary wept at the foot of the Cross, her tears fell to the ground and turned into the tiny fragrant blossoms of this early spring plant. In England it had the name “Our Lady’s Tears” because when viewed from a distance the white flowerets gave the appearance of teardrops falling.
The lily of the valley was a symbol of the Virgin Mary because of its pure white flowers, sweet smell and humble appearance. It symbolized Mary’s Immaculate Conception and represented the purity of body and soul by which Mary found favor with God.
The sacred text does not speak of your tears, Mary, as our legend does. It tells us instead that you stood by the cross and you were not alone. Other women and John were also there. We wonder at the sorrow, the bitterness, the pain of this little community standing by. Fragrant tiny white lily-bells, a thousand quiet tears bowing before the still-cold winter winds, teach me of springtime and the Resurrection just beyond the stone-cold tomb.
Roses and Lillies
Rosa, red rose. Our Lady’s Rose; Lilium, white lily. Mary’s Lily.
About 12 years after Jesus’ resurrection, an angel appeared to Mary to tell her that in three days she would be called forth from her body to where her Son awaited her. Mary asked that her sons and brothers, the apostles, be gathered near her, so that she could see them before she died and so they could bury her. The angel told her the apostles would be with her that day, and they were immediately plucked up by clouds wherever they were preaching and transported to her house.
Then Jesus came for her and her soul went forth out of her body and flew upward in the arms of her Son. As Mary rose, she was surrounded with red roses and white lilies. Three days later, her body came forth from the tomb and was assumed into heaven, accompanied by a chorus of angels.
Thomas, however, was not present and when he arrived refused to believe that this had happened. He asked that her tomb be opened and when it was opened it contained only lilies and roses.
Roses and lilies have been symbols of Mary since earliest times. The rose, emblematic of her purity, glory and sorrow, was her attribute as Queen of Heaven and a symbol of her love for God and for Christ, her son. The lily represented her immaculate purity, her innocence and virginity.
Your destiny is our destiny, Mary. Your life mirrors to us what ours is to be, if we but faithfully follow Christ Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. We look forward, Mary, to our gathering in and homecoming; we also look forward to meeting you. Center us as you were centered. May he alone be the norm, form and goal of our lives.
Iris pseudacorus. Yellow flag iris.
During the 14th century in France, a wealthy knight, Salaun, renounced the world and entered the Cistercian Order. He was very devout but could never remember more than the first two words of the Ave Maria. He kept repeating the two words, “Ave Maria,” as he prayed to the Virgin. He prayed to her day and night, using only those two words. He grew old and when he died was buried in the chapel-yard of the monastery.
As proof that Mary had heard his short but earnest prayer, a fleur-de-lis plant sprang up on his grave, and on every flower shone in golden letters the words “Ave Maria.” The monks, who had ridiculed him because of what they viewed as his ignorant piety, were so amazed that they opened his grave. There they found the root of the plant resting on the lips of the knight. Finally they understood his great devotion.
In Chartres Cathedral in France, the famous 13th-century rose window of the north transept, which depicts the Glorification of the Virgin, includes the fleur-de-lis, said to be a symbol of the Annunciation.
Mary, more countless than the drops in an ocean or stars in the firmament are the repetitions down the ages of those gracious words: Hail, ave, full of grace, the Lord is with you. I add my chant, my prayer, my roses and lilies to the wellspring of praise.
Planting a Mary Garden
A Mary Garden is a garden dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God. In a Mary Garden, which can be as small as a clay pot or as large as a city block, a statue of Mary is surrounded by herbs and flowers which have special significance for her, through legends or naming.
Your personal Mary Garden can grow in a secluded corner of your garden or backyard or open to the neighborhood in front of your house. It can be in a pot on your windowsill, on a patio or on an indoor table.
A Mary Garden can be formal or wild, sunny or shady, containing annuals and perennials, herbs, ground covers and shrubs. It can be planted with bulbs to bloom in the early spring, plants that continue into the fall and evergreens that give color in winter.
Mary’s image might be a statue, plaque, holy card or icon. Ann Duffy of Annapolis, Maryland, painted the likeness of Mary’s face from a holy card on a piece of wood and waterproofed it for her outdoor garden. A large concrete statue of Mary, found in a garden ornaments shop, graces my Mary Garden.
The location, size and soil of the site will determine what can be planted in an outdoor garden. After that, personal preference, and sometimes Divine Providence, is the guide. Since the Mary names of hundreds of flowers and herbs have survived, your garden may contain many of your favorite flowers, planted with the intention of honoring Mary and representing her many attributes. An indoor garden might be planted in a dish, planter, glass or fishbowl.
Pilgrimage to Mary Gardens
Five large Mary Gardens, each with an original statue of the Madonna and all connected with religious institutions, are located east of the Mississippi River. To walk through the gardens is to take a sensual and spiritual tour. We smile at Our Lady’s Delight, smell the fragrant lavender with its tiny florets and imagine Mary’s purse spilling forth marigolds. Thyme and bedstraw, violets and columbine all tell of Mary’s life and inspire us to prayer and meditation.
A pilgrimage might include one or more of these gardens:
The Garden of Our Lady, across Millfield Street from St. Joseph Church in Woods Hole on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, grows behind a six-foot-tall yew hedge. The oldest known Mary Garden in this country is the “garden enclosed” of medieval times.
The Mary Garden at St. Mary’s Church, Annapolis, Maryland, is located behind the church in the quadrangle formed by the church, rectory and historic Carroll House on Duke of Gloucester Street in the heart of old Annapolis.
The Mary Garden at the Shrine at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto at Mount Saint John is located near Dayton, Ohio. The grotto is a proportional model of the Lourdes Grotto at Massabielle in France.
Mary’s Garden at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Portage, Michigan, runs along the front of the church, high on a hill. Both church and garden can be seen from the road. The sun beats down on the garden most of the day and the many-hued plants and blossoms form a cool oasis.
The Mary Garden at the Episcopal Convent of the Transfiguration covers a shady hillside on the grounds of the convent in the Cincinnati, Ohio, suburb of Glendale. This tranquil Mary Garden grows under huge shade trees and is filled with shade-loving plants.
International travelers might visit the Mary Gardens at the Knock Shrine, County Mayo, and the Artane Oratory of the Resurrection, Dublin, Ireland; the cloister of Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln, England; Our Lady’s Parish, Wangaratta, Victoria, Australia; and the Church of Our Lady of Akita, Akita, Japan.
Vincenzina Krymow (1930-2015) is the author of Mary’s Flowers: Gardens, Legends & Meditations. Sister M. Jean Frisk, Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, has a master’s in theology with a Marian concentration and a licentiate in sacred theology.