Mary Gardens

Daniel J. Foley, Editor of Horticulture The Herbarist, 1953

More than a quarter of a century ago when I first began to explore the plant realm, I remember a visit I made one warm afternoon in June was to an old Salem garden where sweet William and foxgloves, delphiniums and Canterbury bells, ferns and sweet rocket and a host of other plants flourished in a series of meandering borders. The flower beds were edged with violets which were kept trim and formal by reason of the "bobbing" or shearing their owner gave them on several occasions through the summer months. I recall an espaliered peach tree which covered one side of the old tool shed, but most of all I remember a figure of Our Lady enshrined in a shady corner of the garden. My inquisitiveness got the better of me and I asked about the shrine. The dear old lady who tended the garden told me that she had dedicated her garden to Mary and, somehow, the thought lingered with me. At that time I knew nothing of the tradition of the Mary Gardens of the Middle Ages, but a few years later, while doing some research in college, I discovered a host of ancient plant traditions associated with the life of Our Lady. When my old friend dedicated her garden to Mary, I am sure that she was not aware of the fact that she was reviving a Medieval tradition.

During the past twenty years, in fact since the founding of the Herb Society of America, there has been kindled in the hearts of gardeners a new enthusiasm for the symbolism of plants. And not the least of those is the urge to know more of gardens and gardening in the "age of faith." Perhaps the most intrepid example of the present fervor and devotion is a garden established in Philadelphia in 1951 by John S. Stokes, Jr., and Edward A. McTague (two young businessmen) called Mary's Gardens. They distribute seeds of the more familiar flowers associated with Our Lady and carry on their labor of love as a non-profit enterprise in a most extraordinarily spiritual fashion. It is truly refreshing to read their letters and to sense some of the spiritual fire that kindles their hearts in this confused atomic age filled with wars and rumors of war.

Another significant signpost that warms this writer's heart is the recent publication of a monumental work entitled Plants of the Bible, Waltham, Mass., Chronica Botanica, by Harold N. Moldenke and Alma L. Moldenke. The authors devoted more than 12 years of research to their task, with the result that we now have a carefully documented and most readable book to serve as inspiration for all who would plant a Mary Garden.

If we are to conjure up in our minds any concrete notions of the Mary Gardens of Medieval times, we must turn to the wood cuts and illuminated manuscripts of the period. The contemporary writings of the Venerable Bede and St. Augustine contain some casual comments and the early herbals make reference to numerous plants carrying Our Lady's name; but for specific notions of these ancient gardens we must interpret the illustrations, many of which were idealized and glorified by the artists who painted and drew them. It is only natural that they should have been embellished greatly because these illustrations were expressions of devotion.

The beauty of holiness symbolized by flowers was a living part of the expression of the period. Ecclesiastics like Bede referred to the lily as the emblem of the Virgin with the petals symbolic of bodily purity and the anthers typifying the beauty of her soul. Augustine delighted in championing the daisy (probably Bellis perennis), whose yellow center was the sun and whose ray petals were purity and goodness.

The acompanying illustration and the notes that accompany it may well serve to convey something of the spirit of the deep-rooted symbolism which was an integral part of Medieval life. . . .

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Illustration by an unknown artist of the 15th century. Art Gallery, Frankfort.

Mary is seated in an enclosed garden surrounded by a castellated wall. Her crown is of leafy sprigs. Nearby the child, Jesus, is being taught to play a musical instrument. At the right St. Michael and St. George, in armor, and, conversing beneath the vine-stock, a tiny ape-like devil is barely discernible. Behind Our Lady, irises, hollyhocks, marigolds and other flowers are growing in a raised bed. Iris is the symbol of royal birth, referring to Christ, descended from the house of David. In the foreground are daisies, lilies-of-the-valley, violets, cowslips and strawberries. A rose tree, cherries and apples are also featured. Several birds are easily recognized. The atmosphere is a pleasant one and the composition as a whole has an easy kind of lifelike quality not always found in Medieval illustration.
Illustration by Courtesy of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.

One of the early references to Mary Gardens is to be found in An Introduction to the Obedientary and Manor Rolls of Norwich Cathedral Priory by H. W. Saunders. From this record we learn that the Sacristan had "S. Mary's garden" and the "green garden" and the cellarer rented the "little garden" or "garden within the gates."

Curiously enough, many of the plants which came to be associated with Our Lady during the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance had been known since before the dawn of Christianity and their attributes were associated with pagan deities. Thus plants formerly associated with and considered sacred to Juno, Venus and Diana of Greek mythology, Bertha and Freyia of Scandinavian traditions were bestowed upon the Madonna. If we ponder the studies of the great humanist scholars and accept the belief that the coming of Christ brought a new sense of values into the world, then it is easy to understand how Christianity flung its shadow over the entire vegetable kingdom. In their ardor to stamp out every vestige of heathen intelligence and thought, the early fathers soon interpreted the folklore and the apparent associations of heathen nature worship with the Christian tradition. In every corner of the Old World, the life and sufferings of Christ and the everyday happenings of Mary and Joseph and the saints dominated the thoughts and the beliefs of peasant and nobleman alike. The Age of Faith had made a deep imprint.

The English writer Hepworth Dixon has caught the spirit of this simple faith in these lines: "Hearing that the best years of her youth and womanhood were spent, before she yet knew grief, on this sunny hill and side slope, her feet being for ever among the daisies, poppies and anemones, which grow everywhere about, we have made her the patroness of all our flowers. The Virgin is our rose of Sharon, our lily of the valley. The poetry no less than the piety of Europe has ascribed to her the whole bloom and coloring of the fields and hedges."

However, after the turmoil and upheaval caused by the Reformation, many of the folk names of plants previously associated with the Holy Family were divested of their divine associations. The dawn of secularism, in a large measure, cast a heavy shadow on that feeling of devotion which had previously characterized the Christian world. Nonetheless, in many a village and hamlet in Europe today the folk names associated with plants dedicated to Our Lady are still in use.

In making a Mary Garden today it would perhaps not be practical to grow all the plants associated with the Madonna. Some are denizens of partial shade, others are weedy by nature and still others are plants for special uses such as ground covers. Soil requirements and hardiness are also factors to be considered. If the garden maker wishes a traditional Medieval garden, a simple knot patterm or a series or rectangular or square beds designed to fit the area chosen would be most suitable. Old grapevine trimmings might be used to make a wattle with which to surround the garden. A suitable figure cast in metal or carved in stone or wood might well be used as a focal point. Many of the sweet-smelling herbs of Medieval days could be mingled with the plants associated with Mary. A well designed pool or a bird bath might be incorporated if it could be adapted to the area for such a garden.

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