Corpus Christi Blog

Mary Gardens

04-28-2024Weekly ReflectionJen Arnold, M.A.

It is no secret that Catholics honor Mary. (For a proper understanding of the difference between worship and honor, you can see the article on my website on Latria vs Dulia.) By virtue of being Jesus’ mother, as well as the catalyst for his first miracle that initiated his public ministry, and by staying by his side all the way to the foot of the cross on Calvary, Mary provided a perfect example of what it means to be a Christian disciple with perfect faith. The Catholic Church has a variety of devotions in her honor to assist us on our own journeys. The rosary is a prayer containing 20 mysteries that represent pivotal events in the lives of Mary and Jesus. The Way of the Cross enables us to meditate with Mary as she followed Jesus during his passion and death. The Church has also given her various titles to reflect her many attributes, such as the Immaculate Conception, Queen of Angels, or Mother of Sorrows. In this piece, I will explore a lesser-known devotion in honor of the Blessed Mother: Mary Gardens.

Christianity is well known for using symbols to signify different concepts in the faith. For example, the symbol of the fish, or ichthys, was used to identify followers of Jesus; wheat and grapes signify the Eucharist; a dove represents the Holy Spirit; and so on.

Because of limited access to formal education in its early years, many individuals couldn't read even their own languages, let alone Latin – the Church’s official language. As the Church spread, religious leaders would mitigate illiteracy by using creative ways to catechize and teach the faith within their communities. Stained glass windows, sculptures, and ornate paintings depicting scenes from scripture and theological realities would decorate churches so that, as people attended the Latin Mass, they could still engage and learn about the faith. Eventually, it became common also to use God’s creation, including plants and flowers, to symbolize the supernatural realities of Christianity.

The earliest known Mary Garden can be traced back to medieval Europe in the 7th century. St. Fiacre of Breuil (c.600-670) was an Irish monk known as a gifted gardener with extensive knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants. He moved from Ireland to France and built a hermitage in the forest. He planted a garden there in Mary’s honor, which served as a hospice for travelers in need of his assistance with their ailments. Today, he is the patron saint of gardeners.

Monasteries and convents quickly adopted the tradition of planting gardens for Mary, making it another valuable tool for helping catechize and teach the faith in their local communities. At first, the common names of the various plants were specific to regional areas. Still, as Mary Gardens became more widely used, the names of the plants became more standardized and are relatively universal today.

Frances Crane Lillie planted the first known Mary Garden in the United States at St. Joseph Church in Cape Cod in 1932. She had traveled throughout England, visiting monasteries, and learning about the gardens, the flowers, and what they represent. She wanted to spread the tradition beyond Europe. Then, in Philadelphia in 1951, Ed McTague and John Stokes created the nonprofit organization Mary’s Gardens to formally revive the medieval tradition by distributing seed packets, bulbs, and informative leaflets. Their research was transferred to the care of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton in 2013, where it remains today.

The symbols of most, if not all, of the flowers are borne out of legends. The legends are not meant to claim that something happened precisely a certain way, but rather to spark the imagination while meditating on something we know did happen. While I can’t provide an exhaustive list of popular Marian flowers and their meanings here, I do want to give a few examples so you can better understand the types of symbolism present in a Mary Garden.

Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) – Our Lady’s Shoes – As Mary walked to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, this flower is said to have sprung up wherever her foot touched the ground. The purple color of the blossom stands for the sorrow Mary would experience at the foot of the cross, and the flower resembles a dove, representing the Holy Spirit that accompanied Mary on her journey.

Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) – The Flower of the Purification, Fair Maid of February, Candlemas Bells – This flower is said to have bloomed on February 2nd as Mary presented Jesus in the temple, according to the Law of Moses. It reminds us that Jesus subjected himself to the law.

Rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica) – Rose of the Virgin, Holy Night Rose, and Mary's Rose – The legend says this flower sprang up to mark each spot the Holy Family stopped to rest on their flight to Egypt, allowing us to meditate on the challenges they faced during this period, and on their complete trust in God's plan.

Forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpioides) – Eyes of Mary – This flower reminds us that Mary looked at Jesus with a mother's eyes and saw God face to face. She gazed upon him lovingly as a baby and as he grew in his childhood under her care during his hidden years. These are also the eyes with which she observed his public ministry and watched his suffering in his passion and death. This flower reminds us always to keep our gaze fixed on Jesus.

Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) – Mary’s Tears – Scripture does not say that Mary ever cried, but it’s hard to imagine she did not. The legend says that as Mary wept at the foot of the cross, each tear falling to the ground became one of these blossoms. The flowers themselves have the appearance of teardrops falling.

Now that you know more about Mary Gardens and how they can remind us of holy events and Mary's virtue as we admire the flowers, I hope you are inspired to plant one at your home for your meditation. You can plant an outdoor garden in the ground or configure pots of varying shapes and sizes into a space that needs dressing up. You can also do mini-indoor gardens, perhaps focusing on herbs and spices. Wherever you decide to put your garden, include a statue or image of the Blessed Mother to signify the gift of honor for her, remembering that when we love his mother, it pleases Jesus.

Whether or not you’re an expert gardener, there is no right or wrong way to create a garden. Many websites and books can help you plan your garden according to climate, season, and expertise. I recommend the book, Mary’s Flowers: Gardens, Legends, and Meditations by Vincenzina Krymow.

Enjoy your garden and share its beauty and symbolism with others!