Mary Gardens do not bloom in December, but since the liturgical season of Advent is a time of waiting for the momentous birth of the Christ Child I cannot help but think about what a confusing time it must have been for Mary.
All mothers waiting for the arrival of their first child often feel confused because emotions can range from frightened to joyous. What will the birth be like? What will the baby be like? What will the woman be like once she is a mother?
I think about Mary on that long donkey ride to Bethlehem. Mothers are weary and expectant during that last month of pregnancy as the baby comes closer and closer to being a reality. The very young Mary must still have been trying to get her mind around the memory of the angel who told her she would carry this special child, and the visit to her cousin Elizabeth which was more confirmation that this child was going to be very special.
In ancient times the pagan goddesses all had flowers associated with their personalities. For example, the rose and the lily are connected with Venus, denoting her love and her purity. Mary is a unique figure to all Christians; it is no surprise that over the centuries such a figure would have many stories grow up around her. In an age when most of the population was illiterate, symbols were important to storytelling. In Mary’s story various plants became symbols of her character and the events in her life. Some people have taken those symbols to create a Mary Garden where they might meditate on her life.
Most paintings of the Annunciation, show an angel appearing with a white lily to tell Mary that she would bear a son who would ‘be the greatest and shall be called the son of the Highest.” The lily, white for purity with a golden heart, is the first symbol of Mary and is considered essential to any Mary Garden. The second symbol, the iris, is more important because of its sword-like foliage than its flower. When Mary and Joseph presented the new baby in the templeSimeon said, “This child is destined to be a sign which men will reject; and you too shall be pierced to the heart.” Confusion upon confusion – angels, shepherds, wise men and dire warnings, and she just a new mother with a baby.
Mary came to be called the Mystical Rose and so roses are also necessary in a Mary garden. Thornless roses symbolize Mary who herself was declared born without sin, and all the roses with thorns stand for the rest of humanity with all their faults and failings. Roses for Mary are either white for purity, or red for the passion.
Myth and legend grew up around Mary and many flowers were thought to refer to her domestic life. I can imagine women over the ages thinking of the ways they share Mary’s duties and chores. Mending is no longer a major chore, but Mary’s Candle is one name for the giant mullein (Verbascum), its tall yellow flower spike standing in for a candle that provided light for Mary while she mended the Christ Child’s clothing. Right by her side would have been her tools, Our Lady’s Thimble, otherwise known as the Bluebells of Scotland, and Our Lady’s Pincushion, the Scabiosa.
Many other flowers are connected with Mary from the common marigold which is Mary’s gold, only to be found in nature, the blue of forget-me-nots as clear as Mary’s eyes, and Our Lady’s Keys, the primrose. Some of these associations make more sense than others, but all are beautiful in a garden.
The first garden known to be dedicated to Mary was created by the Irish St. Fiacre in the 7th century. The first record of a Mary Garden was a 15th century listing of plants for the St. Mary’s garden written by the sacristan at the Norwich Priory in England.
The flowers in a Mary Garden are an aid to meditation. Spring brings us columbine for Mary’s shoes, and alchemilla for lady’s mantle for her cloak. Pulmonaria, and other plants with white mottled foliage have been called milkwort or Mary’s milkdrops. You can see that many flowers for a Mary Garden are humble cottage or wildflowers, as unassuming at Mary herself.
A Mary Garden could also include a ground cover like vinca (Virgin flower), foxglove or Our Lady’s Glove, pansies or Our Lady’s Delight, or lilies of the valley for the tears she shed after the crucifixion.
It is thought that the first Mary Garden in the United States was planted at St. Joseph’s Church in Woods Hole on Cape Cod in 1932. Full information about this garden, and MaryGardens in general can be found at the University of Dayton in Ohio,http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/m_garden/marygardensmain.html.
Even if you don’t have an outdoor garden, you can have a Mary Garden. All it takes is an image of the Holy Mother, and potted plants like the prayer plant (Maranta leucoreura) whose foliage closes in the evening like praying hands, and rosemary. My own rosemary plant is producing tiny blue flowers right now, a reminder of the legend that on the flight to Egypt the Holy Family stopped so that Mary could wash the Christ Child’s clothes. She asked plants nearby if she could hang the wet clothes on them to dry but only the rosemary bush consented. To this day rosemary’s blue flowers are a reminder of Mary in her blue cloak.
When you need a respite from the happy holiday hullabaloo, take a few minutes to sit quietly with your plants, no matter which, and meditate on the joys of the season.
Don’t Forget: You can win a copy of Rochelle Greayer’s fabulous book Cultivating Garden Style, AND a copy of The Roses at the End of the Road by Yours Truly simply by leaving a comment here by midnight, December 13. I will randomly choose a winner of this Giveaway celebrating 7 years of blogging at commonweeder on Sunday, December 14. Thank you Timber Press.
Between the Rows November 30, 2014