Gardens can speak to us of earth and of heaven
Besides lilies and roses, flowers offer a variety of reminders of the Virgin Mary
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
This month (Sept. 8), we celebrate the birth of the Virgin Mary. Next month is the month of the Rosary. The two are related, since the rosary takes its name from one of Mary's names - the Mystical Rose.
A rose, blooming amidst the thorns is perhaps the best known floral symbol of the mother of God. A close second in popularity is the lily - often the white lily, for its color of spotless purity. This is the flower most often depicted in artwork of the Annunciation: usual in a trio of flowers to symbolize the Trinity. However, the orange turban lily is also called "Our Lady's tears" and the pastel hosta is known as the Assumption lily because it blooms around Aug. 15.
A legend, probably dating to the Middle Ages, says that St. Thomas - never shaking the title of Doubter - did not believe Mary had been raised to heaven and had her tomb reopened, to find only roses and lilies. And the 14th century poet Dante referred to Mary in his classic Paridiso as "the Rose in which the divine Word became flesh."
Besides roses and lilies, many other flowers have been associated with Mary - both for her personal attributes and her life story. So many flowers have been linked to the Virgin that gardens have been planted with her as the focus. Called "St. Mary Gardens," they can be traced to 15th century Scotland and England.
Today, Mary Gardens are becoming common in many parish landscapes. On June 10, 2000, a Mary Garden was dedicated at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The first recorded Mary Garden in this country was planted in 1932 at St. Joseph Church in Woods Hole, Mass. There are so many flowers associated with Mary that each garden can have
a specific theme or color. The national Shrine's scheme is based on white flowers to symbolize Mary's purity and virginity.
However, purple is also associated with Mary. In the 13th century cathedral of Chartres, France, the Rose window depicts Mary holding the Holy Infant surrounded by 12 fleur-de-lis. The fleur-de-lis is the royal symbol of France and of Mary. It depicts the purple iris, with its three main petals (for the Trinity) and spear-shaped, stiff leaves. Those leaves and the purple color (known for both royalty and sorrow) also give the iris another name associated with Mary: the "sword flower." The name is based on Simeon's prophecy in Luke: "and you yourself a sword shall pierce" (Lk 2:35).
The purple violet was also known, in medieval England, as "Mary's modesty" for its nature of growing close to the ground, in the shade of its heart-shaped leaves. And the blue-purple foxglove is called the Gant de Notre Dame (the glove of Our Lady) in France.
From royal purple, we turn to the yellow of marigolds - or Mary's Gold as it was known in early English days. The flower is associated with the Virgin mother not just for its color but also because it "weeps" (dripping sap in the early morning), a fact noted by Shakespeare in "A Winter's Tale."
The blue delphinium is called "Mary's tears." And the pink bleeding heart of June is associated with both Mary and her son and their Immaculate and Sacred hearts.
Finally, for a mix of both promise and fulfillment, we look to the strawberry - also called the "Fruitful Virgin," since it bears both rich fruit and white flower at the same time.
Flowers and berries hardly seem to have much to do with church teaching. Yet the first place God set human beings was in a garden. Today's garden can speak of that promise of creation, renewed through the Incarnation that took place through Mary. Her life, revealed in the Gospel, is an example for all who follow Christ. In remembering her life example in a thing as common as a garden, we remember that, as poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, "Earth is crammed with Heaven, and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees, takes off his shoes."
Mary saw Heaven on earth and invites us to do the same: "Do whatever he tells you."
(Sources: "Mary's Flowers" by Vincenzia Krymow at www.udayton.edu; All the Plants of the Bible; The Catholic Source Book; the gardens of the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at www.nationalshrine.com; and "Honoring Mary in your garden" in St. Anthony Messenger, May 2000)
(For more information on Mary gardens, see www.mgardens.org.)