February 2008
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Mary’s Gardens – From Ancient Days to New Ways

By  Jerry A Chenault

Mary’s gardens. I often mention them in presentations on "faith gardens," but it would seem few of us are familiar with such a garden type. Is this a new kind of gardening? Hardly. Not unless one considers the medieval ages as "new." But it would seem Mary’s gardens may be returning to popularity as more and more realize the wonderful things faith gardens can do for individuals, groups and communities. Let’s step back in time and check out a bit more about this unique gardening venture.

From Old Testament times flowers have served as symbols of God’s presence and of heaven. Man was created in a garden. The flowering staff (almond) was the sign of Aaron’s election to the priesthood. And there are also the many legends and traditions involving flowers. For example, lilies and roses are said to have been found in Our Lady’s (Mary’s) tomb after her Assumption into heaven. And many, many flowers are named after her. But where did all of this start? And what is a Mary’s garden? We’ll get there, I promise.

 
Mary’s garden provides a place of solitude and rest . This one is in the Biblical Garden section of the Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC.  
Curiously enough, many of the plants which came to be associated with Mary during the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance had been known for many, many years … well, before Christianity … and they were often associated with pagan deities. There were plants associated with Juno, Venus and Diana of Greek mythology. In fact, almost every common plant was the emblem of some god. For example, laurel was sacred to Apollo because Daphne was changed into one while escaping his advances; lily was sacred to Buddha and Brahma; basil to Vishnu and henna plant to Mahomet (also spelled Muhammed).

When Christianity spread from land to land and from nation to nation, its early missionaries soon discovered it was far easier to supplant rather than to try and eliminate pagan customs, rites and traditions. This happened many times with plants and flowers as they were "adopted" into Christendom. Others were re-named as the fervor for Christianity spread along with the desire to honor Mary’s divine purity as the mother of Jesus. None of God’s creatures surpassed flowers for suggesting the immaculateness of her purity.

 
  A close-up of the statue of Mary in the Biblical Garden.
For this reason flowers were given names like "Mary’s flower," "Our Lady’s Flower" or "The Virgin’s Flower." In medieval times there were entire gardens of these flowers made to honor, remember and meditate upon Mary. Statues were often included. Now it makes sense when we hear flower names like "Lady’s Bedstraw," "Lady’s Slipper," etc. Even ladybugs make more sense now, don’t they? The names were often shortened down to "Lady" or "Lady’s" from the previous "Our Lady." I guess you’ve figured out by now marigolds were "Mary’s gold." The flowers were all cultivated in gardens in Mary’s honor. The medieval period was marked by a widespread desire to venerate Mary, who was invoked under the title of Our Lady, Notre Dame, Unsure Frau.

After the Reformation many of the plants which had previously been dedicated to the Virgin had their popular names changed again and in such a way as to refer to any girl or woman, rather than to a specific one. It was a time of turmoil and upheaval; however, many of those old plant names are still in use in Europe today (and many here, too), and some publications list at least 165 of these for use in developing Mary’s gardens.

Like all faith gardens, Mary’s gardens provide a place of solitude and rest from a loud and busy world, and a great place for introspection and meditation/prayer. They can be a great asset to a community or an individual in so many ways. Want to know more? Check out our web site at www.faithgardens.org. Happy gardening!

Jerry A. Chenault is with the Urban R.E.A., New & Nontraditional Programs.