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John Stokes and Mary's Gardens

Flowers for the Fairest

– Daniel J. Foley, The Pilot, May 19 & 26, 1956, Editor of Horticulture and staff member of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society

Scores of flowering plants associated with Our Lady, particularly in the Middle Ages, have given gardeners all over America a fresh idea for a very special kind of garden. Mary Gardens, little plots or large ones, where there might be a suitable place for a statue of Mary surrounded with plants are pleasant to contemplate and plan these bright May days.

Our Lady's slippers, her thimble, her keys, her looking glass, her tresses, her teardrops, her nightcap and a host of others were symbolized in the wild and garden flowers of Europe in the great "Age of Faith." These symbols were very real to our medieval ancestors, because the parts of the flowers closely resemble the articles for which they are named.


If an attempt were made to assemble all the plants associated with Our Lady, the list would run to several hundred. However, many of these favorites of the European countryside are, by their very nature, unadapted to present-day gardens. Some of them would fit nicely in a woodland planting, were space available. But for the small plots which most of us cultivate, gardeners must choose those best adapted to the home garden.

Soil requirements, the amount of sunlight available and the types of plants, including annuals, perennials and shrubs, must be considered first.

Here are some easy to grow plants which can well provide the start for a Mary Garden.

Lily-of-the-valley – Our Lady's Tears
Cyclamen – Our Lady's Little Ladles
Morning-glories – Our Lady's Mantle
Spearmint – Mary's Mint
Bethlehem sage – Our Lady's Milk Drops
Rosemary – Rose of Mary
Pansies – Our Lady's Delight
Roses Emblem of Mary – the Mystical Rose
English daisies – Mary-loves
Forget-me-nots – Eyes of Mary
Marigolds – Mary's Gold
Canterbury bells – Our Lady's Night Cap
Scabiosa – Mary's Pincushion
Sweet William – Mary's Tuft
Columbine – Our Lady's Shoes
Foxgloves – Our Lady's Gloves
Meadow rue – Our Lady of the Meadow
Peonies – Mary's Rose
White Plantain Lily – Assumption Lily
Fuchsia – Our Lady's Eardrops
Hollyhock – St. Joseph's Staff
Petunias – Our Lady's Praises

If your garden is in a shady spot, why not carpet the ground with lily-of-the-valley, an easy to grow, hardy perennial, which can be transplanted at most any time of year. This familiar plant does best in rich, well drained soil, and thrives in partial shade. In the Middle Ages, the flowers were used to decorate the Lady Chapels of the great cathedrals, and in the folklore of Europe, we find references to the lily-of-the-valley as Our Lady's Tears.

Another denizen of shade is the tiny autumn cyclamen, Cyclamen purpurascens, which develops its bright rose-pink flowers from large brownish corms. These are planted in late summer and flower during late September and October. Given good drainage and a sheltered location, they are hardy in the Boston area, but are little known even to expert gardeners. Curiously enough, this plant, which was dedicated to Mary was also used as a charm against bad weather. From the upwards angle of its blooms retained on drooping stems it was known in Germany as Our Lady's Little Ladles.

To cover a fence or a trellis, plant morning-glories. These annual vines with flowers in shades of white, lilac, pink and a striped form climb over trellises and fences with great abandon. Soak the seed over night to hasten germination. The curious shape of the flower, like that of a nightcap, gives rise to the medieval name of Our Lady's Nightcap, to keep her hair in place, and also Our Lady's Mantle.

A fragrant bed of herbs, which can also be a delight for flavoring in the kitchen, belongs in any well-ordered Mary Garden. Chief among the plants to be included is our common spearmint, known in France as Menthe de Notre Dame and in Italy as St. Mary's herb. This hardy perennial spreads rapidly on underground stems and must be kept in bounds to prevent it from being weedy.

For an edging of the herb plot, you can plant pulmonaria or lungwort, also known as Bethlehem sage, or Our Lady's milkwort because of the white spots on the lush green leaves. It is a hardy perennial with bright blue flowers in late April and May. The enduring foliage keeps fresh and green all summer long and it does well in part shade.


A fragrant woody shrub, seldom growing more than two feet high, is our beloved rosemary, known for centuries as a favorite in herb gardens. This plant is not hardy in the New England area, but potted specimens can be obtained from herb dealers. The pungent leaves are spicy and pleasant to the nose, and the bluish flowers appear on old plants in early spring. According to tradition, the flowers which were once white, became blue in color when Our Lady spread her coat on a rosemary bush to dry, and was known as Rose of Mary.

The old-time pansies with small flowers, known as Our Lady's delights, are sometimes found in gardens where they seed themselves readily. However, they are not easy to come by, and we must rely on present-day pansies and violas to take their places, These easy-to-grow plants make delightful edgings for beds and borders, and the colors you choose will be based on your own preferences. These expressive little flowers with faces that are almost human, were appropriately known as Our Lady's Delight.

For centuries red and white roses have been associated with Mary and her Rosary. Scholars differ on the origin of the Rosary, but tradition has credited St. Dominic with the devotion whereby prayers were said on beads made of rose leaves which had been pressed into round molds. The rapid spread of praying the Rosary is credited to a legend that subtle roses were seen proceeding upwards too heaven from the lips of a young monk praying his Aves with his beads. In season, rose blooms were strung together to make a devotional chain.

In its early use, the word Rosary referred to a rose garden and later was used to mean a garland, a wreath or a bouquet of roses. In Italy roses bloom in May and naturally the queen of flowers was dedicated to Mary, as with the month of May. In pre-Christian times, the rose was dedicated to Flora. Almost any rose, bush or climber, singly or in groups fits nicely into a Mary Garden.


Practically all that we know about Mary Gardens of the Middle Ages is contained in the casual references to scores of plants named for Our Lady. We find them in old garden books, in folklore and poetry and in various kinds of manuscripts and books covering a variety of subjects. In some of the old breviaries and illuminated manuscripts, there are illustrations which give us a fairly definite concept of the small plots in enclosed area which were known as Mary Gardens. The fact that they were bordered by walls or hedges and sometimes had fountains as features, would suggest that these little gardens were formal in outline.

However, in re-creating the Mary Garden, we must adapt the space we have at hand and arrange our plants accordingly.

Listings of the above-mentioned plants for edging, middleground and background planting are offered as suggestions for those who wish to plant a garden in the spring. The plants selected will get the beginner off to a good start. Most of the plants in these lists are ideally suited to full sun or light shade. Where tree growth is dense and roots offer competition, a Mary Garden of ground covers and the effect of year-round greenness may have to suffice. However, the presence of a figure, large or small, of Our Lady and the use of plants whose folk names are associated with her, interpret the spirit and concept of what a Mary Garden should be.

For those who would make a formal garden, here is a sketch of a small knot pattern as well as a suggestion for a simple border plan which can be adapted to most home grounds or a convent garden.

Group 1. Plants suitable for edging either type of garden deserve consideration first. Pansies (Our Lady's Delight) in mixed or separate colors will flower over a long period if the seed pods are removed. Likewise, English daisies (Mary-Loves) can be used for edging. Forget-me-nots (Eyes of Mary) are showy and delightful. In late June these can be replaced with the dwarf French marigolds (Mary's Gold) and petunias (Our Lady's Praises) which will flower until frost.

Group 2 For the middle of the border, Canterbury bells (Our Lady's Nightcap)) will make a pleasing appearance in late June and July. Sweet William (Mary's Tuft) makes a charming companion with its fragrant heads of bloom. Assumption Lily, commonly known as white plantain lily, with showy white flowers in August, is easy to grow and worth having. Fuchsia (Lady's Eardrops) is highly decorative and colorful Scabiosa (Lady's Pincushion), an easily grown annual, averages two feet in height and adds color during the summer. Columbine (Our Lady's Shoes or Slippers) is a hardy perennial for June and early July.

Group 3 Background plants appropriate to your devotional garden include various types of roses, the hybrid teas, the floribundas and the shrub roses. If you have a fence or trellis or support, plant some climbing roses. Morning Glories are also attractive and appropriate for one year effects. Tall perennials include foxgloves (Lady's Gloves), hollyhocks (St. Joeph's staff), meadow rue (Our Lady of the Meadow) and peonies (Mary's Rose).

These plants chosen from several hundred plants may well serve as a starter. Most of them are easy to obtain. As your interest and fervor grow you will have the pleasure of tracking down many curious plants to grow and study. Planning and planting a Mary Garden can be as pleasurable, inspiring and devotional a hobby as you choose to make it.

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Pilot.

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.


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