Modern nomenclature may pen them honeysuckle but any medieval Christian would know them as Our Lady’s fingers. White campion - Our Lady’s candles, and forget-me-nots - the Eyes of Mary. Aside from rosemary and marigolds, today’s flowers and herbs are far-removed from their pre-Elizabethan names and associations. Religion was so deeply married to the daily routines of medieval Europeans that even plants bore the name of Our Lady’s likenesses and life events. Early Christians tangibly encountered God through the simple gardens they cultivated in their daily life.
Scholars have uncovered this fascinating European history in which nearly 500 original names for plants and herbs held some reference to Mary. The book Mary’s Flowers by Vincenzina Krymow follows this, “time when all flowers and plants honored Mary, the ‘flower of flowers’ in legend or name.” This humble veneration imbued the medieval world with earthly “chapels” in which to pray and contemplate virtue.
A Benedictine Sister’s writings during the Middle Ages reveals this association. She describes her convent planting a garden at her Wherwell Benedictine nunnery in England, “We built a place set apart for the refreshment of the soul, namely a chapel of the Blessed Virgin, which we adorned on the north side with pleasant vines and trees.” In the ancient Abbey of Cluny in France, there is a statue of the Virgin Mary with the hexameter, “Springtime’s first flowers give thee honors.” In the 6th century St. Bede writes about the white lily’s translucence evoking the purity of Mary’s body and the gold of its anthers, the glory of her soul as she was assumed into heaven.
Legends became associated with various flowers and herbs as a means of remembering parts of scripture and teaching difficult theological concepts. Monks and nuns in European monasteries and convents wrote stories or plays about the tradition of various flowers written to inspire and educate. Some of these are attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. The origin of columbine, originally called Our Lady’s shoe, is explained as having sprung from the earth underneath Mary’s feet on her way to Elizabeth. Thyme, called Our Lady’s bedstraw, was named for its association with the meager bed Mary slept on at the nativity. The lily, called the Madonna lily, was associated with Mary’s purity and tradition held that the angel Gabriel carried one with him at the annunciation.
Flowers and herbs were associated with her characteristics as well. Fragrant herbs reminded Christians of her spiritual sweetness, bitter herbs her sorrows, and healing herbs her boundless mercy. They called lemon balm Sweet Mary. Blue flag iris was called Mary’s Sword of Sorrow because of its sword-pointed leaves and deep purple color.
Some were attributed to her features or articles she would have used. Morning glory was her mantle, sea pink her pin-cushion, and the cuckoo flower her smock.
These traditions were richly revealed in the literature and art of the time. Many painters began to depict Mary in enclosed flower gardens from the 12th through 15th centuries. Early Popes and Saints started writing hymns as early as the 5th century referring to Mary as the “flower of the field,” or calling her a rose and a lily.
In Literature these traditions were revealed through proliferate writings. Chaucer mentioned the “Virgin’s flower” in his poems (the old name for periwinkle). Shakespeare wrote that “winking Mary-buds” (marigolds) began to open their golden eyes. Dante refers to Mary as “the rose in which the divine word became flesh.”
Most of these plant names have been replaced, and the legends associated with them are long forgotten, but there is no doubt that even those without green thumbs could benefit from Middle-Age ritual by getting acquainted with the original Marian names of plants. It’s a way to return to a time when the world was dripping with rich spiritual symbolism, a time when the mysteries Mary held close to her heart were disclosed through a spring bloom. A time when her purity and fiat could be encountered through a humble garden plot, like a Marian sacramental, connecting our material world to the supernatural, and keeping our minds in prayer wherever we go.
Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.
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