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John Stokes and Mary's Gardens

Medieval Flowers of the Madonna

Flowers of the Madonna

Harold N. Moldenke, Co-author of Plants of the Bible
Horticulture, December, 1953

Flowers associated with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, are deeply intertwined with ancient lore that can be traced back beyond the Christian era. In heathen mythology almost every common plant was the emblem of a god; every tree was the abode of a nymph. The laurel was sacred to Apollo in memory of Daphne who was changed into a laurel while escaping his advances. The anemone, poppy and violet were dedicated to Venus, the narcissus and maidenhair fern to Prosperpine, the willow to Ceres, the pink to Jove and the lily, crocus and asphodel to Juno. The lily was also sacred to Buddha and Brahma, the basil to Vishnu and the henna plant to Mahomet.

When Christianity spread from land to land and from nation to nation, its early missionaries soon discovered that it was far easier not to attempt to eliminate entirely all the customs and rites of the pagan religions which they were attempting to supplant, but rather to take over and adopt such of these as were not incompatible with their own faith. This happened many times with flowers and plants.

Ivy was a plant dedicated to Bacchus; the holly and the Yule log were associated with early Druid rites, yet all three soon were used in Christian festivals in England. Plants that had hitherto been sacred to or dedicated to Venus, or to her Scandinavian counterpart, Freya, or to some other great female divinity, now became associated with Mary, mother of Jesus, as were those formerly associated with Juno, Diana and the Teutonic Hulda and Bertha.

The plant known in old Iceland as “Freyje’s Heir” became Our Lady's Hair, and “Maria’s fern” in England now is known as maidenhair. Its scientific name, Adiantum capillus-veneris, indicates that in more ancient times it was dedicated to Venus. A rose which is said to have been the favorite flower of Hulda now is called “Frau Rose” in Germany and “Mother Rose” in England. This tendency is exemplified in other fields of natural history as well.

In parts of Europe, the strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is considered sacred to the Virgin Mary, who is said to accompany children when they go strawberry-picking on St. John's Day. On that day no mother who has lost a child will eat a strawberry, lest her little one get none in Paradise. Actually, this tradition goes back to old German mythology, wherein the goddess Frigga, who presided over marriages, was supposed to go strawberry picking.

One of the plants now called mayweed (Matricaria inodora) was sacred to Athena during the Age of Pericles, but in the Christian era became dedicated to Mary Magdalene and was called St. Mary’s herb. The laurel (Daphne mezereum) connected in Greek mythology with Apollo's inamorata, Daphne, was called Our Lady’s laurel. The plants referred to as Our Lady’s smock and Our Lady’s slippers all had a pre-Christian sanctity.

So many plants have been used in the celebration of the month especially dedicated to Mary, that is, the month of May, that some writers have claimed that all flowers are dedicated to her, especially all such as blossom anywhere during that month. The Flemish painters made wreaths of all kinds and colors of flowers to encircle their paintings of the Mother and Child. Lily-of-the-Valley (Convalaria majalis) and many other spring flowers are widely used to decorate churches and especially Lady chapels.

But there are certain plants which, above all others, are associated in legend and folklore with the Virgin Mary, and whose popular names still indicate this connection. As she reclines in her bedchamber of Virgin's bower (Clematis vitalba), she is provided with shoes, the familiar Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris). For slippers she has such choices as birds-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), our annual garden balsam, (Impatiens balsamina or capensis) and ladyslippers or moccasin flowers (Cypripedium sp.). Her garters were ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea picta) with which to keep her hose in place, and laces for her corset and shoes (Phalaris arundinacea and cuscuta). She is provided with thimbles, the hair bell (Campanula rotundliolia) and the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) and a needle, Roman wormwood (Artemisia pontica) with which to sew. Ladies smock (Cardamine pratensis) as well as her mantle (Alchemilla pratensis, and A. vulgaris) were part of her garb. Among the plants for her cushion were thrift or sea pinks (Armeria vulgaris, A. maritima), knapweed (Centaurea nigra) and a rockfoil (Saxifraga hypnoides) on which to recline.

She also has a comb (Scandix pecten-venctis) with whose slender, tapering seedpod-beaks, set together like teeth, she may comb her tresses and a looking-glass (Specularia speculum.veneris) to assist her in this process. The lovely orchid genus, Spiranthus, provides Our Lady's tresses, and there is also Our Lady’s hair (Briza media). She has as a nightcap, one of the bindweeds (Convolvulus sepium), the European wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) or the canterbury bell (Campanula medium), with which to keep her curls in place. Her ruffles are dropwort (Filipendula hexapetala), her ribands, ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea picta) and her needlework (Aucalis anthriscus). The candles which give her light are the common mullein (Verbascum thapsus). Virgin oil is provided by the common olive (Olea europaea).

When she writes letters to her friends she has a seal or signet, the false solomons seal (Smilacina racemosa) and the black bryony (Tamus communis). The first of these, called Seal of the Blessed Virgin by the old herbalists, now is known in England as Lady's seal (or signet). It became associated with a signet because of the curious seal-like marks left on the rhizome when a stem is shed. The second, now called black bryony, has pretty fruits which also resemble such seals, and old writers say that it can be employed to seal up scars and wounds. At the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin—a festival that dates to A.D. 695—the black bryony is her emblem.

Our Lady’s fingers are provided by Anthyllis vulneraria, Lotus corniculatus, Digitalis purpurea and Lathyrus pratensis, and her navel by the kidneywort (Cotyledon umbilicus), originally called Venus’ navel. Some species of north European orchids, with handshaped underground parts, originally sacred to old Norse goddesses, were called Our Lady’s Hand and Mary’s Hand by the early Christians there. Her gloves are Digitalis purpurea, called “gant de Notre Dame” in French, “Frauen Handschuh” in German and Our Lady's glove in England, and her eardrops are Impatiens capensis and Fuchsia sp. In her pocket (Impatiens capensis) she carries a purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). She has boots (Lotus corniculatus) and a belt (Filipendula ulmaria), and her tears are Convallaria majalis, Her dresses are adorned with Marygold or marigold (Calendula officinalis), and this flower is used at the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin (March 25). To dress her wounds she has Our Lady’s balsam or “Frauenbalsam” (Chrysanthemum balsamita) and Our Lady's lint (Alsine holostea) .

Several plants whose leaves are white-spotted are said in popular legends to have derived their spots from drops or the Virgin’s milk which fell on them. Among these are Our Lady’s thistle, virgin’s thistle, lady’s milk or holy thistle (Silybum marianum). The Bethlehem sage or lungwort (Pulmonaria saccharata) received its common name in this way. In fact, in Cheshire it is called lady’s milk sile (“sile” being a provincialism there for a soil or stain). In Germany it is referred to as Our Lady’s milkwort. In France the common polypody fern (Polypodium vulgare) is called “Marie bregne” and is said to have sprung from the Virgin’s milk. Pulmonaria officinalis is often called Virgin Mary’s milkdrops in England.

The cuckoopint (Cardamine pratensis) is called Lady's Smock because its silver-white blossoms are said to resemble little smocks hung out to dry, and it flowers in Europe at Ladytide (March 25). It is often called Our Lady’s flower. The costmary (Chrysanthemum balsamita) and periwinkle (Vinca minor) are both called “Virgin-Flower” and are sacred to her. The snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), often in full bloom at Candlemas (February 2), is also consecrated to her. On the day following the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, held on Candlemas in memory of her presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple, her images are removed from altars and are replaced by scattered snowdrops, emblematic of purity and virgin chastity, and of Our Lady.

Charm Against Bad Weather

At the Feast of the Conception (December 8) the arborvitae (thuja occidentalis) is dedicated to her. The “bleeding nun” (Cyclamen europaeum), often used as a charm against bad weather, is consecrated to her. Primula elatior in England is called Our Lady’s candlestick and Galega lutea is Our Lady’s cowslip, but Pulmonaria officinalis is also called Virgin Mary’s cowslips. In France the spearmint (Mentha spicata) is dedicated to the Virgin and is called “menthe de Notre Dame”. In her garden she also has Lady Sorrel (Oxalis corniculata and O. stricta), Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina), Lady Clover (Oxalis acetoscela) and even Lady Tobacco (Anaphalis margaritacea). She has the Virgin Mary’s honeysuckle (Pulmonaria officinalis), the Virgin pink (Dianthus plumarius) and the Virgin stock (Malcomia maritima). The Molucca-bean (Cesalpinia bonduc) is often referred to as Virgin Mary’s nut.

It is of interest to note that after the Reformation many of the plants which had previously been dedicated to the Virgin had their popular names changed again and in such a way as to refer to any girl or woman, rather than to a specific one.

The two flowers beyond all others that are emblematic of the Blessed Virgin are the rose in the East and the lily in the West. At the Feast of the Visitation (July 2), instituted by Pope Urban VI to commemorate the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, the Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum) is emblematic of Mary’s virginity, and almost every painting purporting to depict this visit has a vase of these lilies, usually with three blossoms, included. The pure white sepals are symbolic of her spotless body and the six golden anthers of her soul sparkling with divine light. The rose is also used. At the Feast of the Assumption, or miraculous ascent of Mary into heaven, the white virgin’s bower is widely used.

In depicting the Annunciation, early painters represented the angel Gabriel carrying either a scepter or a spray of olive. Later the church instructed artists always to depict him with a spray of Madonna Lilies in his hand, and this edict was followed scrupulously in the later period of Italian church art. Usually the spray consisted of three blossoms, suggesting the Trinity. The lily was symbolic of innocence, purity and virginity, and often, when it was depicted or used on an altar, it had the stamens removed lest they “defile” the virgin chastity of the blossom. At the Feast of the Annunciation today, white irises, flowering almonds and white narcissi are also used.

According to a well-known legend, St. Thomas, not believing the reports about the resurrection of the Virgin, had her tomb opened. Inside, instead of her body, he found the tomb to be filled with lilies and roses.

The rose is used in Italy all through the month of May. Everyone who can secure roses, places them in his oratory or on a table. Both red and white roses have been emblematic of the Virgin since very early times, and were dedicated to Venus before that. When St. Dominic instituted the devotion of the Rosary, he recognized this symbolism and indicated the separate prayers as tiny roses. May—the Month of May or Madonna's Month—was originally sacred to Flora, Roman goddess of flowers and of spring.

Reprinted from “Horticulture”, with permission of the author and “Horticulture”.

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 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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