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Herbs and Flowers of the Virgin Mary

The Herbs and Flowers of the Virgin Mary

– Bonnie Roberson and John Stokes, Jr.
The Herbarist, 1982

Mary Gardens, gardens planted with herbs and flowers that through the ages have been associated with the Virgin Mary, can be said to have roots that go back to times before Christ. Even then, herbs, especially their blossoms, served as symbols of everything that was pure and holy, as found in Christ and his Virgin Mother.

Legends regarding many of these flowers abound in Christian folklore. For instance, it is related that Ornithogalum arabicum, Star-of-Bethlehem, first appeared on this earth on the night of Christ's birth. According to the legend, the star that led the three wise men to Bethlehem burst into thousands of fragments after it had stopped at its destination. These bright fragments which fell to the ground were transformed into flowers, indicating to the Magi the holiness of the area. Another legend relates that

Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose, miraculously appeared when an angel's wings swept the ground in order to provide a gift for a poor girl who was weeping because she had no gift to place beside those brought by the shepherds to the manger at Bethlehem.

In the "nature symbolism" of the Church, certain plants, such as wheat, grapes, thorny plants, and cross-shaped flowers, which recalled the Last Supper, the Crowning of Thorns, the Crucifixion, and the Mystical Body, referred directly to Christ. However, herbs and flowers were generally referred to Christ through his Mother, and thus Mary, typified as the Mystical Bride of Christ by the Church Fathers, was given the titles of Mystical Rose, Rose of Sharon, Lily-of-the-Valley, and Garden Enclosed.

Medieval Christians, in their search for the most exact likeness of Mary, realized that of all God's creations none could excel flowers in representing the beauty of her holiness, the splendor of her heavenly glory and the immaculateness of her purity. Likewise, fragrant herbs and flowers were unsurpassed in recalling her spiritual sweetness: soothing and healing herbs, her heavenly mercy and succor; and bitter and sour herbs, her bitter sorrows.

The Venerable Bede (673-735), Benedictine monk, historian, and scholar, wrote of the white lily as the emblem of the Blessed Virgin; the white petals symbolized the purity of her body and the golden anthers the beauty of her soul. Later, St. Bernard praised the Virgin Mary as "the violet of humility, the lily of chastity, the rose of charity, the Balm of Gilead, and the golden gillyflower of heaven."

With time, more and more herbs and flowers, associated with Mary in various ways, took on emblematic significance and were adopted as signifying specific virtues. Among these, some of the most important were the rose (Rosa canina), which was adopted as the emblem of Mary's love of God; the white lily (Lilium candidum, Madonna lily), her purity; the myrtle (Myrtus communis), her virginity; and the marigold (Calendula officinalis), her heavenly glory.

Christians, who saw these herbs and flowers as special signs of heaven and the unfolding of spiritual life, gathered them for the church, and eventually started placing them on the altars. For special occasions they were strewn throughout the church and woven into garlands and crowns which were worn by the priests.

As their importance intensified, these symbolic flowers and herbs were collected and tended in the sacristan's gardens, gardens planted near the church for purposes of providing cut flowers and herbs for the altar and for church processions.

Later, little specialty gardens devoted solely to the cultivation of the symbolic plants associated with Mary, frequently planted around statuary figures of the Virgin Mary or Virgin with Child, were created. These specialty gardens, called St. Mary's Gardens, or Mary Gardens, enabled people to honor the Virgin Mary and her Son directly in the garden, as well as through the use of the cut flowers inside the church.

It is not known exactly where or when a Mary Garden was first planted. However, it is known that St. Fiacre (600-670), Patron Saint of Gardeners, devoted his life to tending a garden surrounding an oratory and hospice which he built and dedicated to Mary, and perhaps it was his garden which served as a model and inspiration for such gardens.

Unquestionably, many such gardens existed in medieval times, but because all evidence of a garden is lost in a comparatively short time once it is not tended, there is now no means of supportive evidence. Unfortunately, few wrote books on gardening and/or gardens during that time and those that were written and/or illustrated relied mostly on past classical works, with the result that these manuscripts and books do not reflect the actual plants or gardens of their time. Likewise, the Mary Gardens depicted in religious art of that period appear to be ideally conceived rather than based on actual gardens. The St. Mary's Garden mentioned in the accounting records of Norwich Priory, England, is now believed, after thorough research, to have been a traditional monastic rose garden, and the reputed Mary Garden of Melrose Abbey, Scotland, now appears to have been nothing more than the mention in an historical document that the abbot and some of the monks there had private gardens. It is of course possible that these private gardens were Mary Gardens, but there is no specific proof of this.

Literature pertaining to the period of the discovery of the New World, shows that the early explorers and settlers not only very early brought plants that were symbolically related to the Virgin Mary, but that they also very quickly associated native wild plants with symbolic names. Among the latter are: two terrestrial orchids, Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium spp.) and Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes spp.); Madonna's Pins (Geranium maculatum, wild geranium); Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis, meadow cress); Our Lady's Mantle (Ipomoea spp., morning glory); and Our Lady's Lockets (Polygonatum spp., Solomon's seal).

Although flower symbolism in the New World has existed from the days of its discovery and colonization, there is, ironically, no real evidence of a Mary Garden anywhere in the Americas until quite recent times.

It is interesting that in 1932, while seven Boston ladies were busy studying botany at Harvard and thinking of founding a society to further the knowledge of herbs, another lady in nearby Woods Hole, Cape Cod, was busy researching a special category of herbs and plants, those with old religious names that symbolized the Virgin Mary, a selection of which she planted in a very special garden, and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, that very same year. Thus was founded the first public Mary Garden in America.

This garden, founded in 1932 by Mrs. Frances Crane Lillie of Chicago, and a summer resident of Woods Hole where her husband Dr. Frank R. Lillie was President and Director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, is today, after being destroyed twice by hurricanes, restored to its original planting plan. The restoration was prompted by the rediscovery of the garden's historical uniqueness and significance by the parishioners in the course of the research undertaken for the writing of a commemorative history for the centennial of St. Joseph's Parish.

It was Mrs. Lillie's recollection of the symbolic herbs and flowers that she had encountered in England that prompted her to conceive and donate a Mary Garden to St. Joseph's Church. She felt it was an appropriate complement to the Angelus Tower, which she had donated to the Church several years earlier, and she clearly conceived both the Angelus Tower and Mary Garden as a religious statement and summons to the scientists and students at the Marine Biological Laboratory, directly across from St. Joseph's Church. Daily, the chimes of the two bells in the Tower, which are inscribed with the names "Mendel" and "Pasteur", in honor of two pioneers of genetics and bacteriology, testify to this concept.

In planning the Mary Garden, which Mrs. Lillie named "Garden of Our Lady", she enlisted the help of an academic friend, Winifred Emerson of Chicago, to undertake an extensive research of all the old religious names of herbs and flowers as recorded in English botanical, folklore and linguistic studies. From this list she chose and planted in the garden, which had been laid out by Wilfred Wheeler, distinguished horticulturist and first Agricultural Commissioner of Massachusetts, sixty-one specimens which she felt were most symbolically significant. After the first year, it became obvious that some of the English species did not lend themselves to cultivation at Woods Hole, so she engaged in 1933 the services of a landscape architect, Dorothea K. Harrison of Boston, to make a horticulturally more appropriate selection. After many revisions, 48 specimens from a list, which by then numbered 500, were planted around a commissioned statue of the Virgin Mary, in a cross-shaped bed.

The Mary Garden at Woods Hole can truly be considered to be a mother garden. It has not only inspired many visitors into planning their own little Mary Gardens, but was also the inspiration and mother garden for the world-wide Mary's Gardens, founded in Philadelphia in 1951 by Edward A. G. McTague and John S. Stokes, Jr., as a non-profit organization which seeks to revive the medieval practice of cultivating gardens of herbs and flowers which have Marian names.

Research by this foundation and others in the past 30 years into the folklore, flora, art, and gardens of Medieval and Renaissance England, Ireland, France, Germany, the Low Countries, Italy, Spain, and Latin America has produced a list of over 1000 herb, flower, shrub, and tree names that are symbolic of Mary. It is interesting that many of these symbolic names were first found mentioned in the works of Renaissance botanists and illustrators who learned of the common or symbolic folk names of these plants from the ordinary people whom they encountered in their work in the field. Common names of regional flora that had been used by the common folk for hundreds of years were thus historically recorded. Although this extensive list, still under compilation, is not yet available to the general public, Mariana 1, a botanical listing of over 600 plants given symbolic names referring to God, the Virgin Mary, the angels, and the saints in popular Christian tradition, is available, at no cost, to those interested.

A small Mary Garden, as part of any garden, herb or otherwise, would certainly enrich not only the garden and gardener, but visitors to the garden as well. All herbs and flowers evoke a certain fascination in all who pass by, but herbs and flowers which have special symbolic associations with the Virgin Mary add that extra touch of wonder that reminds us all of the Creator, and which can make the garden truly a "paradisi" or "garden of paradise".

Reprinted by permission of The Herbarist

The John Stokes and Mary's Garden collection was transferred to the Marian Library in May 2013. In addition to his archives, manuscripts, artwork, and personal library, John S. Stokes also donated his extensive website. It was transferred to the Marian Library in early 2010. This particular entry is archived content original to Stokes' Mary's Gardens website. It is possible that some text, hyperlinks, etc. are outdated.

All About Mary includes a variety of content, much of which reflects the expertise, interpretations and opinions of the individual authors and not necessarily of the Marian Library or the University of Dayton. Please share feedback or suggestions with


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