During the Middle Ages, the Catholic faithful saw reminders of Mary, the Mother of God, in the flowers and herbs growing around them. Violets were symbols of her humility, lilies her purity, and roses her glory. They called her "Flower of Flowers" and named plants after her. Marigolds were Mary's Gold, clematis was the Virgin's Bower, and lavender was Our Lady's Drying Plant.
Before the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960's, May crownings were the tradition in Catholic schools during Mary's month of May, and makeshift home altars bearing an image of Mary were decorated with the choicest home-grown blossoms.
Those traditions have almost disappeared, but the medieval custom of finding reminders of Mary's attributes, glories, and sorrows in flowers and herbs has left a legacy that can enrich our lives in this new millennium.
Reflecting on the flower names, we can honor Mary and find relevance for our own lives. We see Mary's humility as we gaze upon the humble violet, sing her praises with petunias, and share her sorrows as we behold the purple blossoms and sword-like leaves of the blue flag iris.
More than 30 flowers and herbs bear legends about Mary's life. Many of the plants can be easily grown in your own Mary Garden, a garden dedicated to Mary and containing her image and plants associated with her by name or legend. The legends thatwhich follow can take us, in spirit and in our hearts, on a virtual journey with Mary.
Columbine, or Our Lady's Shoe
Columbine is said to have sprung up wherever Mary's foot touched the earth when she was on her way to visit her cousin, Elizabeth.
The spurred flower resembles a little dove and came to symbolize the Holy Spirit. In England, doves were used to decorate the altar in during Whitsun Week, the week following Pentecost Sunday, as the faithful made a connection between the dove, the Holy Spirit, and Our Lady's Flower, the name they had given the columbine.
Oxeye Daisy, or Mary's Star
On the night that Jesus was born, the Magi, praying on a mountainside, saw a star appear in the form of a fair child. The child told them to go to Jerusalem, where they would find a newborn child. When the Wise Men, following the star, reached the village of Bethlehem, they looked for a further sign. Suddenly, King Melchior saw a strange white and gold flower that looked like the star that had led them to Bethlehem. As he bent to pick it, the door of a stable opened, and he saw the Holy Family.
Juniper, or the Madonna's Juniper Bush
In Sicily, it is told that the juniper bush saved the life of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus during their flight into Egypt. As the soldiers pursued them, the Holy Family hastened through fields of peas and flax and thickets of various shrubs. A juniper bush growing nearby opened up its thick branches to enclose the Holy Family, hiding them until Herod's men had left. The inside of the large bush became a soft bed, sheltering the fleeing family, while needles on the outside branches grew prickly as spears. Herod's soldiers could not penetrate the spiky branches of the juniper and passed the family by.
Fuchsia, or Our Lady's Ear-Drop
The gently drooping flowers resemble ear-drops, or pendant earrings. It is said that Jesus might have playfully hung flower jewels of ruby and amethyst colors on his mother's ears.
It was said that when Mary wept at the foot of the cCross, her tears fell to the ground and turned into the tiny fragrant blossoms of this early spring plant. In England, it had the name "Our Lady's Tears," because when viewed from a distance the white flowerets gave the appearance of teardrops falling.
The lily of the valley was a symbol of the Virgin Mary because of its pure white flowers, sweet smell, and humble appearance. It symbolized Mary's Immaculate Conception and represented the purity of body and soul by which Mary found favor with God.
Red Rose, or Our Lady's Rose, and White Lily, or Mary's Lily
. About 12 years after Jesus' resurrection, an angel appeared to Mary to tell her that in three days she would be called forth from her body to where her sSon awaited her. Mary asked that her sons and brothers, the apostles, be gathered near her, so that she could see them before she died and so they could bury her. The angel told her the apostles would be with her that day, and they were immediately plucked up by clouds wherever they were preaching and transported to her house.
Then Jesus came for her, and her soul went forth out of her body and flew upward in the arms of her son. As Mary rose, she was surrounded with red roses and white lilies. Three days later, her body came forth from the tomb and was assumed into heaven, accompanied by a chorus of angels.
The apostle Thomas, however, was not present, and when he arrived, he refused to believe that this had happened. He asked that her tomb be opened, and when it was opened, it contained only lilies and roses.
Roses and lilies have been symbols of Mary since earliest times. The rose, emblematic of her purity, glories, and sorrows, was her attribute as Queen of Heaven and a symbol of her love for God and for Christ, her son. The lily represented her immaculate purity, her innocence, and her virginity.
Yellow Flag Iris, or Fleur-de-lis
During the 14th century, a wealthy French knight, Salaun, renounced the world and entered the Cistercian order. He was very devout but could never remember more than the first two words of the Ave Maria. He kept repeating the two words, "Ave Maria," as he prayed to the Virgin. He prayed to her day and night, using only those two words. He grew old and when he died was buried in the chapel -yard of the monastery.
As proof that Mary had heard his short but earnest prayer, a fleur-de-lis plant sprang up on his grave, and on every flower the words "Ave Maria" shone in golden letters. the words "Ave Maria." The monks, who had ridiculed Salaun because of what they viewed as his ignorant piety, were so amazed that they opened his grave. There they found the root of the plant resting on the lips of the knight. Finally, they understood his great devotion.
In Chartres Cathedral in France, the famous 13th-century rose window of the north transept, which depicts the Glorification of the Virgin, includes the fleur-de-lis, said to be a symbol of the Annunciation.