It’s a pious and treasured tradition to crown the Blessed Mother with flowers in early Spring by planting a Mary garden during the Marian month of May.
The tradition of planting Mary gardens is old: it stretches back to the 7th century in early medieval Europe, originating as a practice among convents and monasteries. During the time, people saw religious symbolism in the herbs and flowers around them and priests, religious brothers, and sisters would use them as tools to teach others about the Faith, especially the illiterate, reminiscent of stained glass windows being used to tell Biblical stories.
The first historical reference to a Mary garden dates back the 7th century, when Saint Fiacre of Breuil emigrated from Ireland to France to build an hermitage there. During his time in the monastery where he was raised and became a monk, Fiacre “imbibed knowledge of herbal medicine.”
When he arrived in France, he built his hermitage with a personal dwelling, a vegetable & herb garden, a hospice to care for strangers, and a gardened oratory to the Virgin Mary – the first historical example of a Mary garden.
Fiacre was known for his life of devotion to prayer, fasting, vigils, and tending to his garden, earning himself the patronage of gardeners and herbalists.
“His fame for miracles was widespread. He cured all manner of diseases by laying on his hands.”
The second historical example of a Marian connection to flowers is found in a 1373 English recipe for a potion to ward off the plague, featuring the seint mary gouldes, otherwise known as Saint Mary’s Gold or the Marigold.
Over time, flowers in Mary gardens developed symbolism to the events in Mary’s life:
Mary was associated with this passage from the Song of Songs: “I am the Rose of Sharon, the lily of the valleys.” (2:1) A legend from the second century says that when Mary’s tomb was opened to show Thomas that her body had been assumed into heaven, it was filled with roses and lilies.
Also known as “Our Lady’s Shoes,” Columbine is said to have sprung up wherever Mary’s foot touched the ground on her way to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
Known as “Mary’s Drying Plant,” lavender was said to have received its scent after Mary laid Jesus’ clothes on it to dry.
- Madonna Lily
The angel Gabriel is said to have been holding a lily, representing purity, when he appeared to Mary to announce she would bear a child – lilies are often included in artistic renditions of the annunciation.
The marigold was called “Mary’s Gold” by early Christians who placed the flowers around statues of Mary, offering the blossoms in place of coins. A legend says that during the flight into Egypt the Holy Family was accosted by a band of thieves. They took Mary’s purse and when they opened it, marigolds fell out.
The violet is associated with humility and became known as “Our Lady’s Modesty.” It was said to have blossomed when Mary replied to the Angel Gabriel, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
Irises were used in Mary Gardens. The blade-shaped foliage denotes the sorrows which ‘pierced her heart.’