By Mary Farrow and Kate Olivera
Because of the ongoing pandemic, most Catholic parishes in the United States have had to forgo a treasured spring tradition this year: crowning Mary with flowers to honor her during the Marian month of May.
But planting a Mary garden can be another way of honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary with flowers this spring and summer while staying at home.
The tradition of planting Mary Gardens goes back centuries. In the Middle Ages, when much of the population was illiterate, priests and religious brothers and sisters would plant gardens and give the flowers and herbs religious names and symbolism in order to teach people about the faith, in the same way they would use stained glass windows to tell stories of the bible or the saints.
Katrina Harrington, a Catholic artist and mother living in California, has always loved flowers and her middle name – which is Rose. While she doesn’t consider herself a master gardener, she is a watercolor artist, and for a long time, flowers have been her favorite subject.
But several years ago, Harrington was seeking new inspiration and meaning for her art.
“I was trying to find some hidden meaning that I could add to it,” she said. “I have always loved hidden meanings, that’s one of the things I love about Catholic churches. For example, on the altar at the church I grew up in, I remember seeing that there were five marks, for the five wounds of Jesus.”
Harrington also remembered that, when she had been in high school, there was a club for Mary gardens – but it was one of the few activities she wasn’t involved in. She decided to do some research to see what Mary gardens were all about.
“I googled Mary gardens, just thinking, ‘What was that club even about? Is there anything that I can learn from it?’ And it turns out that the University of Dayton has a library focused just on Mary gardens. Their archives are full of so much information about Mary gardens. And I went down that rabbit hole – or I guess flower hole – and I’ve read so much about Mary gardens through that.”
Harrington said she also ordered about every book on Mary gardens that she could find.
“It’s really helped my faith, and it’s helped me to teach our faith to my children when we’re out walking.”
There are many different kinds of flowers and herbs that take on Marian significance that can be planted in a Mary garden, Harrington said.
Perhaps the most obvious flower associated with Mary is a rose.
“Our Lady is called The Mystical Rose. And also, when you hear about the beginnings of the rosary that was given to Saint Dominic, you hear about different legends where, as different saints prayed, roses would float up to Our Lady and she would gather them. So, every time we pray a rosary, I tell my children that ‘you are giving Our Lady a beautiful bouquet. We’re giving our Blessed Mother a crown of flowers,’” she said.
Columbines are another flower that can be planted in Mary gardens. Depending on their color, they can take on different religious meanings.
“Columbines that are red can often be called the Pentecostal Holy Spirit flower because, if you’ve ever seen them, they kind of point upside down with petals that look like…tongues of fire pointing up. So they look like the Holy Spirit coming down at Pentecost upon the Apostles’ heads,” she said.
But if the columbines are white, they are called “Our Lady’s Shoes”
“Another legend associated with the columbine is when Our Lady found out that her cousin Elizabeth was expecting Saint John the Baptist, and she walked to go take care of her,” Harrington said.
Legend has it “that everywhere Our Lady’s shoes or her slippers touched, little white columbines sprouted out of the earth marking her path. So, the other name for columbine would be ‘Our Lady’s Shoes,’” she explained.
Pansies have been given the Marian name “‘Our Lady’s Delight,’ and with that, we can tell our kids to think of how Our Lady delighted in Christ, in having him so close in her life,” Harrington explained.
Sunflowers have also been called “Mary’s Gold,” and can be reminiscent of Mary’s golden crown as Queen of Heaven and Earth, she said.
In her home state of California, bright fuchsia bougainvillea flowers grow abundantly on bushes, and have the religious name of “trinitaria, for Trinity, because in the middle of those flowers are three little white petals, and that’s surrounded then by the three pink pedals,” Harrington said.
“So when we walk by, I tell my children, ‘Oh, this is trinitaria. What prayers should we pray?’ And they know that then, we’ll pray the Glory Be. That’s been really great, to always be pointing my children to the Divine and having fun stories that could help them really lock in that image” and lead them into prayer, she said.
Rosemary and lavender are two herbs that have traditionally been called “Our Lady’s drying plants,” Harrington noted.
“The legend goes that when Our Lady was doing laundry for the Christ child, she laid his swaddling clothes upon the rosemary plant or the lavender bush and that is how they dried. And then that’s also how they got their sweet heavenly scents.”
Harrington paints and sells prints of various Marian flowers, including prints that have specific flowers representing the various mysteries of the rosary.
While her grandmother and parents have been the true gardeners of the family, Harrington said this year, because of the extra time at home due to coronavirus, she was inspired to start planting her own Mary garden.
“I am just very much a novice, but I’m excited to try during this shelter in place, social distancing time. I’m really excited to plant a Mary garden for my kids to help tend to and for us to be inspired by the beauty of God’s creation,” she said.
And she’s not the only one. Harrington said this year, she has noticed an uptick in interest in Mary gardens from followers of her social media and art website.
“Since the pandemic and the accompanying shelter in place that has led to an extraordinary amount of time at home, I think people are paying more attention to what surrounds them in their home,” she said.
“They want their home to be a place of refuge, a place of harboring health, and a place that points them to the divine. A Mary garden is a way to tend to beauty and is a perfect conduit to Jesus as the Blessed Mother always leads us to her Son. There have been many questions as to where to purchase a Mary statue for their garden and what flowers to include,” she said.
Harrington said to start a Mary garden, she advises people to look up what plants and flowers are native to their area, and which of those have Marian meanings. She then recommends that people either order seeds online or call their local nurseries to see what plants are available. It’s important to take into account factors like sunlight, and whether the plants will be indoors or outdoors, she said.
Harrington added that anyone could start a Mary garden, even if they don’t own land.
“It’s important to remember that when you’re trying to use flowers as a prayer guide, to not be so stuck on the word ‘garden’ and that you have to have land. My family and I, we rent. We don’t really actually have a big yard. We don’t have any grass. But we can plant in pots,” she said.
“If you have only an indoor space or a small outdoor space, I would try to find a great plant that doesn’t need a ton of sunlight that can be on a windowsill,” she said. “And if you can, just put your statue of Our Lady next to that.”
Harrington said she hopes to publish guides to Marian gardens sometime soon, and more information on those or her art can be found on her website.
She said now in particular is a good time for people to slow down and enjoy the leisure of gardening, since most people have to stay at home much more than they are used to due to the pandemic, and she hopes that Mary gardens can be a source of joy and rest for those who plant one.
“As Saint Paul of The Cross said: ‘Let everything in creation draw you to God. Refresh your mind with some innocent recreation and needful rest. If it were only to saunter through the garden or the field, listening to the sermon preached by the flowers, the trees, the meadows, the sun, the sky, and the whole universe, you will find that they exhort you to love and praise God, that they excite you to extol the greatness of the sovereign architect who has given them their being.’”