Herbs and Flowers of the Virgin Mary: A Guide to Their Symbolism and Uses

herbs and flowers of virgin mary

Mary Gardens are special spaces where plants connected to the Virgin Mary are grown. These gardens have historical roots dating back to times even before Christ.

Back then, herbs and their blossoms symbolized purity and holiness.

Numerous legends are tied to these flowers.

For example, the Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum arabicum) is said to have originated on the night of Christ’s birth. According to legend, the guiding star for the three wise men shattered into countless pieces upon reaching its destination, and those fragments transformed into flowers, signaling the sacredness of the site.

Another story relates how the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) appeared when an angel’s wings swept the ground for a poor girl, providing her with a gift to place alongside those brought by the shepherds to the manger.

In Christian nature symbolism, specific plants like wheat, grapes, thorny plants, and cross-shaped flowers directly referred to Christ’s life events—the Last Supper, the Crowning of Thorns, the Crucifixion, and the Mystical Body.

More often, herbs and flowers indirectly represented Christ through his Mother. The Church Fathers gave Mary titles like Mystical Rose, Rose of Sharon, and Garden Enclosed.

Medieval Christians revered flowers as the closest representation of Mary’s holiness, heavenly glory, and purity. Fragrant herbs reflected her spiritual sweetness; soothing and healing herbs, her mercy; and bitter herbs, her sorrows.

The Venerable Bede saw the white lily as an emblem of the Virgin, with its white petals symbolizing her body’s purity and golden anthers her soul’s beauty.

Later, St. Bernard praised Mary as “the violet of humility, the lily of chastity, the rose of charity, the Balm of Gilead, and the golden gillyflower of heaven.”

Over time, many herbs and flowers took on symbolic meanings linked to Mary. Some prominent ones include the rose (Rosa canina), symbolizing her love of God; the white lily (Lilium candidum or Madonna lily), representing her purity; the myrtle (Myrtus communis), her virginity; and the marigold (Calendula officinalis), her heavenly glory.

Christians associated these plants with heavenly signs and spiritual life, using them to decorate churches. They were often strewn across church floors or woven into garlands and crowns for priests.

In time, these symbolic plants were curated in sacristan’s gardens—gardens near churches supplying cut flowers and herbs for altars and processions.

Smaller gardens dedicated solely to Mary, often featuring statues of her or the Virgin with Child, emerged later. Mary Gardens allowed people to honor Mary and Jesus in the garden and through flower offerings inside churches.

Although it’s unclear when the first Mary Garden was planted, St. Fiacre (600-670), Patron Saint of Gardeners, may have inspired the concept with the garden he tended around his oratory and hospice dedicated to Mary.

Mary Gardens flourished in medieval times, though evidence is scarce due to their perishability.

Gardening books or records from that era are limited and often rely on classical works, not reflecting the actual period gardens. Religious art depicted idealized rather than real gardens.

Accounts of gardens in places like Norwich Priory and Melrose Abbey reveal they might not have been intended as Mary Gardens, but rather typical monastic rose gardens.

During the exploration and colonization of the New World, settlers brought with them plants symbolically tied to Mary. They also quickly gave symbolic names to native plants. Examples include two orchids (Lady’s Slipper and Lady’s Tresses), Madonna’s Pins (wild geranium), Lady’s Smock (meadow cress), Our Lady’s Mantle (morning glory), and Our Lady’s Lockets (Solomon’s seal).

Symbolism continued in the New World, but there is no concrete evidence of any Mary Garden in the Americas until more recent times.

The first known public Mary Garden in America was established in 1932 by Mrs. Frances Crane Lillie in Woods Hole, Cape Cod.

She had been inspired by symbolic herbs and flowers she had seen in England.

Despite being destroyed twice by hurricanes, this garden has been restored to its original design. Mrs. Lillie’s garden, dedicated to St. Joseph’s Church, underscores her desire to provide a spiritual space for the scientists and students of the nearby Marine Biological Laboratory, where her husband was the President and Director.

Posted by Samuel Brown

Samuel Brown is the founder of REEP.org, a Christian blog intertwining gardening with spiritual growth. Through REEP.org, Samuel explores the biblical symbolism of gardens, offering practical gardening tips infused with spiritual insights. Inspired by Jeremiah 17:8, he emphasizes the parallels between nurturing plants and cultivating faith. Join Samuel on a journey where gardening becomes a metaphor for resilience, spiritual fruitfulness, and a deeper connection with God's creation.