"Bring flowers of the rarest, bring blossoms the fairest
From garden and woodland and hillside and vale"
So goes the popular Catholic hymn to Mary often asociated with the Marian pilgrimage site of Lourdes. This link between Mary and flowers lies deep in the popular religious consciousness, for the delicate beauty of these flower stands for her femininity, a link that was expressed in the Marian garden.
There are now in England few Marian gardens, sad that this is so in a land where they once thrived, but the mass vandalism of the English Reformation, which saw the now much lamented destruction of ninety five per cent of England's religious art, also occasioned the destruction of religious gardens as the monasteries fell to Henry's tyranny. As Protestantism paid little heed to the Mother of God, most Marian gardens fell into abandonment and ruin and were replaced. Much of what we know about mediaeval Marian gardens comes from European religious art, which depicts Mary with a garden background.
The Marian garden will contain flowers dedicated to Mary, also known as Our Lady,of which there is a wide range. The lily is often associated with Mary, for its white represents puriity, and below you can see the Madonna lily, a plant specifically linked to her. But there is also the rose, which is replete with symbolism. Its beauty is linked to her because she represents the sacred feminine, to which the beauty of flowers gives tribute.Yet the thorns stand for the suffering that she underwent when she witnessed Jesus being crucified, for she had her own cross to bear. In fact she is often lined with plants that have sword-shaped leaves, as lilies do, to represent Simeon's prophecy that sword of sorrow would pierce her heart.[Luke chapter 2.]
Various colours are associated with Mary, including gold and blue, a colour associated with her robe as depicted in religious art. But both colours are in art linked to the incarnation, and are represented by flowers of these shades. One is solidago, golden rod, whose proliferation of small, delicate and golden blossoms testified to her role as the queen of heaven, whom gold behoves. Before the Reformation the gardener/sacristan at Melrose Abbey in Southern Scotland grew the rare blue rosemary in honour of Mary and to adorn the church at her feast days. Snowdrops also were considered symbolic of Mary, for they were white for purity and they mark the coming of spring,just as the message from the angel Gabriel to her at the annunication was the moment at which her devoted yes to God allowed the incarnation to take place.These plants are linked to Candlemas, the old English name for the feast of the purification of Mary after child birth, which takes place on February the Second, an ancient pagan Spring time festival.
Yet the suffering that Mary underwent in her life is sometimes represented by bitter plants. One of these is Artemisia absinthum, wormwood, which reminds us of the pain that she underwent when Jesus was rejected, and also the fact that she was persecuted by is enemies after death to the extent that she had to go to Ephesus, so Christian tradition tells us.