St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners, kept the first record of a cultivated space in honor of Our Lady. Some six hundred years after Our Lady walked the earth, the healer and hermit created a garden dedicated to the Blessed Virgin on the grounds of the hospice for the poor and infirm that he founded in France. What a blessing it must have been to the sick and dying, to have a beautiful space to sit and ask Mary to help them prepare to meet her Son.
St. Fiacre wasn’t the first person to dedicate particular plants to religious figures. In pre-Christian times, poppies, apples, and ash trees were all dedicated to Aphrodite, Hera, and Zeus, respectively. As Christianity spread to new cultures, old plants were given a botanical “baptism” of sorts and reassigned to Christ, His mother, and His saints. “Seint Mary Gouldes”, for example, was a plant listed in a plague remedy from the 1300s- and so the sunny little calendula became known forevermore as “Marigolds”.
There are a number of charming legends involving Our Lady and plants. One tale explains the origin of lavender’s distinct fragrance. During the flight to Egypt, the Holy Family stopped beside a river to rest and briefly camp. Mary washed Jesus’ swaddling cloths in the water, then laid them over a clump of lavender to dry. Anyone who has grown the plant knows how tall and stiff the stems can get, creating a perfect makeshift clothesline for tiny garments. The story goes on to reveal that proximity to the Incarnation’s baby clothes is what bestowed the beautiful scent upon the plant. A sort of botanical odor of sanctity.
The common milk thistle, which is considered highly invasive in some areas and may already be growing in your yard, is named after Our Lady both in common and Latin names. Locally called names like “blessed milk thistle” and “Mary’s thistle”, the scientific name, Silybum marianum, honors Our Lady as well. Science is beginning to confirm what folk medicine has long known, that compounds in milk thistle help purify the liver, which itself helps purify the blood. Fitting, that a woman possessing singular purity would have such plant named in her honor.
Other plants are attached to Mary for more symbolic reasons. The iris is associated with her because the shape of their leaves resemble swords, such as the spiritual ones that pierced the heart of Our Lady of Sorrows. Impatiens were once called “Our Lady’s Earring” because she heard the Word of the Lord and responded. Sweetgrass, a deeply aromatic perennial type of grass, is also known as “Mary’s Grass” and used to be burned as incense on All Soul’s Day. Perhaps the rich smell reminded people of the sweetness of our good and loving heavenly mother, praying for all us. The humble brown eyed susan, which grows as a wildflower in many places, is easy to grow from seed, and enthusiastically spreads itself, is also known as “Golden Jerusalem”. A fitting addition to a Mary garden for a woman known as “the Glory of Jerusalem”.
No discussion of Marian gardening would be complete without mention of the rose. The damask rose (Rosa damascena) is the type that St. Juan Diago collected at Tepeyak hill, while the tea rose (Rosa odorata) is traditionally grown for Our Lady based on the color. White tea roses are in honor of Mary’s purity, red for her sorrows, yellow/gold for her glory. Unfortunately, no amount of hybridizing and selective breeding will ever give us a blue rose for the Blessed Virgin, as no rose contains the gene responsible for blue pigmentation. Perhaps in heaven though, there will be blue roses in honor of the Mystical Rose.
The first public Mary garden here in the United States was built on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1932. Created by Frances Crane Lillie, on the grounds of St. Joseph Parish, the area features Rose of Sharon, long associated with Our Lady, as well as a number of Marian flowers and herbs Lillie learned about during her time in Europe. And while the parish itself has since been closed for regular worship, the chapel and garden are open during the summer months.
Creating a Mary garden in one’s own space is a popular means of honoring God’s unique plan for salvation. It can be as elaborate or simple as the space and the gardener’s tastes direct, with as many ways to set aside a part of our world for contemplation as there are spaces and gardeners. Renters or people with no yard area can create a small space with hanging baskets. If the cost of a statue makes buying one prohibitive, scouring local thrift shops often yields treasure. Failing that, something as simple as a laminated image of Our Lady serves nicely. Others have painted the many titles of Mary on rocks, sealed them against the weather, and placed them in their gardens.
Many plants associated with Our Lady respond well to division, so make friends with your green-thumbed neighbors and see if they’re willing to part with a shovelful or two. And if the weather where you are is still blisteringly hot, take heed- many nurseries put their stock on sale in late August, so you have some time for things to cool down, and go on clearance. Remember, Our Lady’s birthday is September 8th, and what mom doesn’t love the gift of flowers?