Flowers and Herbs Named After Events in the Life of the Virgin Mary
By Sean M. Wright
On Dec. 8 each year, the Catholic Church liturgically celebrates the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She recognized that her delivery from sin came about, not by her own merits, but by none other than “God my Savior” (Luke 1:46). This direct historical event set into motion God’s plan for humanity’s redemption. This humble and sanctified woman would then permit God to take human form within her womb (see Luke 1:38).
Regarding Mary, early Church Fathers were struck by verse 4:12 in The Song of Songs: “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up,” as fore-shadowing her pure virginity. By the Middle Ages, pious tales had been spun, often as bedtime stories as many of them still read, connecting herbs, spices and flowers to events in the Gospels.
Minstrels and troubadours exalted the birth of Jesus with songs based on these tales, composed to show how the Incarnation embraced creation. Reflecting on Jesus as the fruit of Mary’s virginal womb, a number of flowers, herbs and spices became known as “Cradle Herbs and Flowers” and planted in a small front or backyard plot of land called a “Mary Garden” to be cultivated as flavor-enhancing condiments and as medicines for ailments.
Follow along as your humble scribe cites Catholic history, legend and lore about various shrubs and flowers, herbs and spices which became associated with the purity and sanctity of the ever-gracious Virgin Mother and her Divine Son.
The English historian St. Bede the Venerable (673-735 A.D.) is one of the earliest writers to see in the Madonna Lily a symbol of the Virgin’s pure body, while the golden anthers of the interior indicate the radiance of her soul. The blue of Baby’s Breath (“Mary’s Veil”) also represents Mary’s purity as well as the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit, the “Breath of God.”
The Virgin is invoked as the Rosa Mystica —the “Mystical Rose,” in the Litany of Loreto, a title explained in the “Paradiso” of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In heaven, the poet’s guide, his beloved Beatrice, bids him contemplate the Holy Virgin as “the Rose in which the Divine Word became flesh.”
Long considered the queen of all flowers, the rose is closely associated to Mary as Queen of Heaven. Roses are prominent in her appearances on earth. The Virgin herself arranged roses in the tilma of St. Juan Diego to cover her portrait. She wore roses on her slippers at La Salette and on her bare feet at Lourdes. The Church’s most beloved meditation is Mary’s Chaplet of the Roses — the rosary.
The deep blue Monkshood, originally called “Our Lady’s Slipper” symbolizes Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in the hill country near Jerusalem, as does the thistle-down when it gracefully wafts along the air currents. Legend says that each of Mary’s footfalls produced flowers.
In Bethlehem, Joseph gathered masses of grasses from the fields surrounding the stable to provide his wife a fragrant, comfortable bed. And so, amid the wild thyme, symbolizing strength, and sweet woodruff, representing humility, the Lady Mary gave birth to Jesus, the incarnate God.
After the child’s birth, he was laid upon the white flowers of laurel, which burst open to reveal a brilliant gold within. Mary then lined the manger with what is now known as Our Lady’s bedstraw, a fragrant herb when dried, its scent similar to vanilla. The tops also yield a yellow dye used in coloring butter and cheese, especially English Cheshire cheese
The sweet-smelling sainfoin (a legume eaten by both sheep and cattle) bloomed to form a decorative halo of pink flowers to wreathe the Christ child’s head. Outside, where the brilliance of the great star overhead struck the ground, the light burst into vast multitudes of tiny bright yellow flowers now called Stars of Bethlehem.
PRESENTATION / PURIFICATION
Following Mosaic Law, the Holy Family presented Mary’s firstborn son to the Lord, and celebrated her purification after childbirth at the Temple in Jerusalem. The prophet Simeon, having joyfully beheld the infant Savior, warned Mary of an overwhelming sadness: “And your own soul a sword shall pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:35).
The Holy Mother’s intense grief as she stood at the foot of her son’s cross won her the right to intercede for his followers. The blade-like petals and deep purple hue of the flag iris betoken both the blade and the misery, so it is also called “Mary’s Sword of Sorrow.”
FLIGHT INTO EGYPT
Nearing the Negev Desert, Joseph paused to search for water. Soon Mary heard the hard galloping and distant shouts of Herod’s soldiers. She appealed to nearby rose and clove bushes for refuge. The rose feared being trampled; the conceited clove refused.
The one bush remaining, the lowly sage, was little more than a weed. Yet, honored by Mary’s urgent request, the Sage immediately shot forth deep blue blossoms and gray-green leaves in abundance, forming a generous canopy to shelter the young mother and her son to conceal them from the onrushing soldiers. The sage is thus called “Mary’s Shawl”.
The danger past, Mary gladly pressed a bower to her lips, giving it a grateful kiss. Sage has ever since had a pleasant, tangy fragrance. Its leaves and blossoms became a delicious seasoning for vegetables and meats alike. Leaves and blossoms of sage are also used as a balm for aches or burns, and gargling with powdered sage in water relieves sore throats.
At their next rest stop, the Blessed Virgin washed her little son’s clothing in a stream, hanging them on a Lavender bush to dry. Only then did the lavender gain its clean aroma. Lavender was an expensive ingredient in this balm we know as “nard” or “spikenard,” which Mary of Bethany poured over Jesus’ head (see John 12:3).
Again, still making their getaway from Bethlehem, the Holy Family, weary with travel, found repose in a shady grove. Mary spread her blue cloak on a lavish sweep of white flowers where they napped. Upon awakening, grateful for the soft bed and exquisite aroma, Mary blessed the herb. Taking up her blue cloak, the white flowers turned the same shade of blue and became “the Rose of Mary”.
The rosemary was thus endowed with antibacterial properties. It can be soaked in water for a refreshing wash; its flavorful blossoms can be sprinkled into salads and used to flavor meat, especially roast beef during Christmastide. In medieval homes, rosemary was spread on floors at Christmas so its pleasant fragrance filled the house as guests trod upon it.
In yet another incident on the ever-eventful road to Egypt, the Holy Family stopped again. While Joseph was off searching for food a band of thieves came upon Mary and Jesus. They demanded her leather pouch which contained all the gold presented by the magi. When the purse-strings were loosened, golden flower petals fell out — Mary’s gold.
The marigold blooms continuously, its flowers often appearing on the first days of each month. Medicinally, tincture of marigold is used topically to treat acne, control bleeding, reduce inflammation, and sooth irritated tissue. Taken internally, marigold can relieve abdominal cramps.
The British are particularly fond of marigold in their cookery. Petals, both fresh and dried, have been used to color butter and cheese while also flavoring many types of soups and drinks. And it makes an especially delicious tea. Talk about cooking organic!
WEDDING FEAST AT CANA
As a concerned guest, the Lady Mary informs her Son that the wine at a wedding party has given out. Bringing the situation to his attention, she asks for nothing. When, however, she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” it reflects, again, the depths of her faith.
The six-petaled scarlet anemone and the white variety traced in red bring to mind the six large stone jars Jesus asked be filled with water which immediately fermented itself into wine. As the poet Crashaw described the incident, “The conscious water beheld its Creator and blushed.”
(Sean M. Wright, MA, award-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated television writer and Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, is a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita. He responds to comments sent to Locksley69@aol.com.)