The month of May is a special time to honour our Blessed Mother Mary. Marian devotions may include singing Marian hymns, readings, homilies, and reciting the rosary.
In his 1951 encyclical Ingruentium malorum Pope Pius XI wrote:
The custom of the family recitation of the Holy Rosary is a most efficacious means. What a sweet sight – most pleasing to God – when, at eventide, the Christian home resounds with the frequent repetition of praises in honour of the High Queen of Heaven! ‘‘
In his 1965 encyclical, Mense Maio, Pope Paul VI identified the month of May as an opportune time to incorporate special prayers for peace into traditional May devotions.
Flores de Mayo
In the Philippines and other countries, Mary is fêted in May with the Flores de Mayo (Flowers of May), where devotees collect colourful flowers to decorate the parish church’s altars and aisles. Catholic communities congregate in the afternoons to pray the rosary, offer flowers to an image of Mary and share delicacies and snacks. In formal procession children and adults wear their Sunday best, singing and dancing to welcome the rains that will water the new crops.
The Mary Garden
The practice of honouring Mary with flowers originated among monasteries and convents in medieval Europe. During the Middle Ages, people saw reminders of Mary in the flowers and herbs growing around them. Here Tricia O’Donnell describes the Mary Garden.
For centuries Catholics have looked for ways to honour Mary. As the Mother of God she has long held a special place in our hearts and has inspired shrines dedicated to her, pilgrimages to those places, or just simply daily praying of the Rosary.
People in medieval times found a unique and practical way to demonstrate their devotion to her, by planting a Mary garden. Living close to the earth was common for many early Christians who relied on their plantings to sustain them and their families. Giving thanks for their bounty was instinctive and it was a natural progression to relate their plants to all things sacred, with special emphasis on the Blessed Mother, whose beauty and purity embodied nature.
St Fiacre of Breuil
The first Mary Garden was thought to have been created by St Fiacre of Breuil, now the patron saint of gardeners. This 7th century Irish monk moved to France, where he built an oratory and a hospice for travellers. The oratory was surrounded by a garden containing plants associated with Our Lady. Even then, legends connecting various plants with Mary were widespread, so whether for show or medicinal, each one had a purpose.
It is impossible to think of Mary without thinking of flowers. She is inextricably linked to so much of nature’s flora, from the humble snowdrop to the magnificent rose as well as healing herbs such as chamomile, sage and thyme. It’s thought the first plant to be officially named after Our Lady was ‘seint mary gouldes,’ or the marigold, in the 14th century. People believed its properties kept the plague away and it was during this era that associating plants with Christianity became the most prolific. From Christ’s Passion, to Mary’s sorrows, to the flight of the Holy Family – all were connected to nature and each flower or herb told a story.
The rise of Protestantism curtailed much of this, and for centuries Latin or common names for plants were used. However, gradually a revival took place, particularly in the early 20th century, when many of the legends surrounding the flowers resurfaced and Mary Gardens again became popular. Of course, the centrepiece of any Mary Garden is a statue or icon of Our Lady. The garden need not even be outside – although the original gardens were – it can be in the smallest space available, such as a balcony or a patio. The important element is that the flowers are associated with Mary.
Here are some of these and the stories behind them.
It is said these bloomed under Mary’s window when she said ‘yes’ to God upon hearing the message from the Angel Gabriel. Violets have long been a symbol of humility for this reason.
Known as Mary’s Sword of Sorrow, as the pointed shape of its leaves represent the piercing of her heart.
Mary as the Mystical Rose.
Also associated with the Annunciation as the Angel Gabriel carried this as he relayed his message – again a symbol of Mary’s purity.
Also known as Lady’s Slipper. Legend says that when Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, these flowers appeared with every step she took.
The story goes that when Mary’s empty tomb was opened by some of the Apostles, it was filled with roses and lilies. White roses represent her purity, red, her sorrow (also the Blood of Christ), red and white together the Visitation, and gold her glory. This beautiful flower truly epitomises Our Blessed Lady, hence her title the Mystical Rose.
Lily of the Valley
Known as Our Lady’s Tears, it is said these little white flowers were born out of Mary’s tears as she watched her Son die on the Cross.
During the flight into Egypt, thieves stopped the Holy Family and stole Mary’s purse. According to legend, when they opened it, marigolds fell out.
Also known as Mary’s Drying Plant due to the lovely scent that remained after draping Jesus’ clothes over the bush to dry.
In medieval times it was known as Our Lady’s Eardrops, as people imagined a young Jesus placing these delicate pink and purple flowers on her ears.
Also known as Mary’s Prayer. Its shape reminded people of a chalice, which they felt was filled with grace due to her acceptance of God’s will.
This became known as Our Lady’s Mantle, as this is what came to mind upon the sight of the mass of blue flowers spread across the ground.
And many others
There are literally hundreds of flowers dedicated to Mary, which speak of her attributes, her physical beauty and her life. Many of the stories behind them have been lost over the centuries but the names have remained constant.
Amaryllis (Beautiful Lady); Forget-me-not (Eyes of Mary); Carnation (Mother of God’s Love); Cornflower (Mary’s Crown); Impatiens (Mother Love); Sweet Pea (Our Lady’s Flower); Hosta (Assumption Lily); Daffodil (Mary’s Star) and Primrose (Our Lady’s Candlestick); Clematis (Virgin’s Bower), to name but a few.
If you wanted to plant some herbs in your Mary Garden try some Peppermint (Our Lady’s Mint); Thyme or Marjoram (Mary’s Bedstraw); Lemon Balm (Sweet Mary); Chives Our Lady’s Garlic); Sage (Our Lady’s Shawl); or Rosemary (St Mary’s Tree).
It’s not only plants that people chose to name after Mary. The humble ladybird was originally known as Our Lady’s bird, or Lady’s beetle, and it was credited with eliminating aphids from crops in medieval times. Some species, particularly in Europe, have seven black spots on their backs, which according to legend represent her seven Joys and seven Sorrows. These little insects would be welcome in anyone’s Mary Garden!
No doubt many of us already have plants and flowers in our gardens which will relate to Our Holy Mother in some way. By creating our own Mary Gardens we would be doing our part in reviving this wonderful tradition of honouring the Mother of our God.
The Mary Garden, by Tricia O’Donnell, was first published in Marist Messenger, 31 January 2017, and was republished in WelCom with permission.
Well-known parishioner Ted Downs of Whanganui Catholic Parish – Te Parihi Katorika ki Whanganui, sits quietly beside the grotto he built himself in the corner of his St John’s Hill property as his own sacred area of prayer. ‘It’s a very peaceful place and I recite my afternoon rosary and chaplets of Mary here or just sit on this bench and pray,’ he says. Ted has had a strong prayerful connection to Our Lady since he and his wife Maureen immigrated from Ireland 54 years ago. Awarded life membership of the Voice for Life in April 2013 he still attends the Monday evening rosary started 28 years ago specifically seeking the intercession of Our Lady to keep the city abortion free. Fr Don Don Rancho blessed the Grotto in the New Year.
Ted Downs and Patrick Seconi (r) take a final look at the stations of the Rosary Way at Jerusalem after a complete upgrade. The set of 15 stations and five explanation-boards had suffered weather damage since they were erected along the shady dirt path beside the old orphanage in Jerusalem 25 years ago. Rotten timber was replaced, all of them painted and new images inserted in each. ‘I was aware of Rhenus Veldhoen and the late Malcolm Russell who were master carpenters and originally built the stations as I worked,’ Patrick said. ‘The detail of painting in the groove of the actual carvings demanded a steady hand. Ted was inspired to initiate such a Rosary Way when he went to Aylesford Carmelite Priory just outside London. Parishioners have generously adopted a station donating $25 for each which will cover costs. To celebrate the stations’ 25th anniversary on 25th March 2020, Emeritus Bishop Peter Cullinane will rededicate them since he blessed them at their opening.
Words and photos: Sue Seconi
Published in WelCom May 2019