Revered as the “lily of the valley,” the “mystical rose” and by Chaucer as “the flower of flowers,” the Virgin Mary is inextricably intertwined with flowers of all kinds. From the legends of the first disciples to the roses from Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531 to the floral crowns honoring Mary every May, where Mary is, blossoms abound.
Medieval artwork depicts the Blessed Virgin amidst flowers symbolizing her life events or esteemed character traits. Nearly every blossoming plant was commonly known by a Marian name at one time.
“We have made her the patroness of all our flowers,” noted English historian William Hepworth Dixon in the mid-1800s.
The earliest known garden devoted exclusively to Mary was cultivated by Saint Fiacre, the Irish patron saint of gardening, at a hospice home in France in the seventh century.
Mary gardens initially grew popular at monasteries in England. The quaint, often enclosed and richly symbolic gardens spread like wildflowers across the English countryside and throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. The first Mary garden in the United States was reported in Massachusetts in 1932. An article about that garden inspired the founding of Mary’s Gardens 20 years later, a nonprofit international movement “to revive the Medieval practice of cultivating gardens of herbs and flowers which have Marian names.”
ALASKA GARDENS BLOSSOMING
In the Anchorage bowl, Marian gardens are cropping up outside private homes and on parish grounds. Whether still purchasing annuals for a humble window box or welcoming back perennial blooms in established landscaping, dedicating or rededicating flowerbeds can cultivate new meaning as a sacred space honoring Our Lady.
Jean Watson is one of the “Leprechaun” gardening volunteers who care for St. Patrick Church’s elegant and ever expanding cloister garden, which features a Mary garden. Nearly every year she takes the Anchorage Garden Club’s annual tour showcasing gardens across the Anchorage bowl, but she never toured a Mary garden.
“Other than the occasional statue of Saint Francis made into a bird feeder, I never saw any religious or Catholic statue on the tours, and I saw a lot of gardens,” she said.
Though the Alaska transplant recalls statues of the Blessed Mother gracing many New England yards, she was wholly unfamiliar with the concept of Mary gardens until she got involved with research and planning for St. Patrick’s gardens.
“Mary gardens were really new to people here,” she said. “They are all over the country and go back to the Middle Ages, so it’s not a new concept. We just didn’t see a lot of that here.”
Last year St. Patrick’s cloister, with its Marian shrine and various Biblical themes and stately statues, was showcased in the Anchorage Garden Club tour.
Jeff and Cathy Medland of Eagle River received inspiration for a Mary garden years ago at a Catholic school benefit auction in Texas, where they won stepping stones for a walkable rosary. Designed by their daughter’s kindergarten class, the walkable rosary stones came packaged with a book about Mary gardens and plants associated with the Madonna. They searched extensively until they found a felicitous statue of Our Lady.
The statue and the stones traveled with the Medlands in the Air Force from Texas to Maryland and at last to the backyard of their permanent home in Eagle River. There Jeff built a grotto of large stones collected from all over.
“We just wanted to make a little nest area for our Blessed Mother,” Cathy said. “His mom was a big Mary fan and so was mine. When we met each other we were both saying a rosary a day to help find the right spouse. Both our mothers had told us to do that.”
When they selected flowers to plant at Mary’s feet in June, the Medland children enthusiastically rooted for marigolds — “Mary’s gold” — arguably her most widely known floral namesake. Marigolds are among several medieval Marian monikers that prevailed through the centuries and remain in common use today. Bachelor’s buttons (“Mary’s crown”), purple alyssum (“Mary’s flower”), irises (“sword of sorrow”) and sprays of yellow globeflower (trollius) representing generosity fill out the Medlands’ Mary garden.
‘A SACRED PLACE TO PRAY’
Their book about Mary’s gardens was shared at a retreat a few years ago at the Holy Spirit Retreat Center in Anchorage. Participant Michele Finley was inspired to rededicate her gardens to Mary at her home in Eagle River. Hers features bluebells (blue is Mary’s color), irises and columbine, once known as Our Lady’s slippers. Early Christian legend said dove-shaped columbines sprang up in every footstep as Mary went to visit Elizabeth after the annunciation.
A statue of Mary stands over the flowerbeds in Finley’s front yard. If the flowers grow especially tall, she places Mary on a pedestal. While she adopted some suggestions from the Medlands’ book, Finley advises new Mary gardeners to not feel restricted to the traditional Marian blossoms. One year she chose red annuals for the sacred heart, white for Mary’s purity and yellow representing the glory of God.
“You can make it mean what you want it to,” she said. “We’re not limited to what is found in a book.”
After all, the goal is a sacred place to pray and venerate Our Lady, she explained.
“I do my meditation there and I pray,” Finley said. “I look at the gardens and think about what these mean to me.”
POSSIBILITIES ARE INFINITE
The Alaskan state flower, the forget-me-not, was once known as Eyes of Mary. Another hardy Alaskan favorite with Marian roots is snapdragons, which were called baby Jesus booties. Fuchsia, with its splendid purple and red pendant-shaped blossoms rated suitably hardy for Alaska weather, commonly was referred to as Mary’s Eardrops (earrings). The legend behind another local favorite, Lily of the Valley, was that these bloomed from Mary’s tears as she stood at the foot of the cross. Some believe “the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley,” heralded in Song of Songs, alludes to Our Lady. Strawberries, which represent Mary’s fruitfulness, are a popular choice for Mary gardens due to its unusual botanical characteristic of being in flower and fruit simultaneously, which symbolizes the virgin birth.
In addition to the countless Marian flowers, some gardeners incorporate other spiritual themes. Finley plants fruits and vegetables in her Mary garden, Stations of the Cross are a highlight in the gardens around the Holy Spirit Retreat Center, and the Healing Garden at St. Andrew Church in Eagle River features a walkable rosary with stones memorializing lost loved ones. Soon the space will feature a new statue of Mary.
Once the research and design is done, Mary is in place and the flowers are planted, the final step for the consummate Mary garden is a blessing. If a priest is unavailable to bless the garden, gardeners could recite this Servite prayer used to bless flowers for Mary’s coronation: “O almighty everlasting God, we beseech thee to bless these flowers… that there may be in them goodness, virtue, tranquility, peace, victory, abundance of good things, the plentitude of blessing, thanksgiving to God the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and a most pleasing commemoration of the glorious Mother of God — that they may put forth an odor of virtue and sweetness.”