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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
This article is excerpted
Flowers: Gardens, Legends & Meditations (B3496), by Vincenzina
Krymow. Illustrated by A. Joseph Barrish, S.M. Meditations by M. Jean
Frisk. ©1999. Published in the United States and available from St.
Anthony Messenger Press, 1615 Republic Street, Cincinnati, OH 45210,
at $29.95, plus shipping and handling. To order, you can call 1-800-488-0488.
Published in Canada by Novalis, 49 Front Street E., Second Floor,
Toronto, Ontario M5E 1B3 Canada, at $29.95 (Canadian). To order in
Canada, you can phone 1-800-387-7164.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
a free-lance writer from Centerville, Ohio, is married with two children
and one grandchild. Her work on Mary Gardens, flowers and legends
appears on two Web sites: Mary’s Gardens Home Page (www.mgardens.org)
and the University of Dayton Marian Library’s Mary Page (www.udayton.edu/mary).
Sister M. Jean Frisk, Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, has a master’s
in theology with a Marian concentration and a licentiate in sacred
theology. She is on the staff of the Marian Library/International
Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton and currently
edits their Mary Page. A. Joseph Barrish, Society of Mary, is an artist,
designer and liturgical design consultant in Dayton.