Planting with prayer in mind

May 7, 2008 | Nature, Original NSS, prayer

I was out in the yard with Chiara today, exploring the spring flowers that are in bloom. When I spotted the beautiful Bleeding Heart (also known as Mary’s Heart) with its abundant pink hanging blossoms (that’s it in the photo above), it reminded me of an article I wrote some years back about gardens devoted to Mary. Gardening tends to be a meditative practice for many people, so it only makes sense that we could use particular plants, statues and other markers to turn our little plots of land into perennially prayerful places.

I happen to have St. Francis of Assisi in my garden:

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We bought this wonderful Mexican statue before we left Texas, and, despite the fact that he bears his share of dirt and grime, I care for him as if he is as delicate as that hot pink hyacinth (Lily-Among-Thorns) you see in front of him. Every winter, I gingerly carry him into our sunporch to provide him with shelter from the inevitable storms, and then, each spring when I prepare the spot where he sits, it is a concrete  — or fired clay — reminder that spring has arrived.

Although I am intrigued by Mary Gardens, I have never gotten around to doing more than planting the occasional Mary plant, like the Bleeding Heart near St. Francis, which was actually growing wild in another part of my yard before I  moved it, or the Lady’s Mantel that lines my back flower beds. I keep waiting to find the perfect Mary statue and the perfect location to make an “official” garden, but so far I haven’t had the time or inclination or inspiration to make it happen.

Many of the traditional annual or perennial plants that dot our landscapes have religious names in additional to their biological or common names, however. So you may have a Mary Garden in the making right under your nose. If I run through the plants in my yard, I can come up with quite a list:

Bleeding Heart, Lady’s Mantel, Hyacinth, Candytuft (Easter Flower), Veronica (Our Lady’s Faith), Violets (Our Lady’s Modesty), Snowdrop (Candlemas Bells), Daffodil (Mary’s Star), Crocus (Penitent’s Rose), Lily of the Valley (Our Lady’s Tears), Day Lily (St. Joseph’s Lily), Spirea (St. Peter’s Wreath), Vinca Minor (Virgin Flower), Hosta (Assumption Lily), Trillium (Trinity Lily), even my Boxwood shrubs (Candlemas Greens).

The medieval tradition of creating gardens to honor Mary took hold in the United States back in 1932, when Frances Crane Lillie researched plants and herbs with religious names that symbolized Mary, and planted the first public Mary Garden in the United States at St. Joseph’s Church in Woods Hole, Mass. That sparked the creation of a Philadelphia-based organization named Mary’s Gardens. Founded in 1951 by John S. Stokes Jr., who died last year, and Edward A.G. McTague, the non-profit group was established to revive the tradition that fell out of favor during the Protestant Reformation.

Mary’s Gardens Web site (which you can visit by clicking HERE) provides an array of articles, photographs, garden plans, prayers, historical information and more. Ten years ago, I spoke with Mr. Stokes while writing an article on this subject for Our Sunday Visitor. He told me then that Mary Gardens “deepen prayer lives by enabling persons who acquire the habit of seeing flowers as religious symbols to be quickened to religious thoughts and prayer when encountering these flowers in nature, gardens, window boxes and shopping centers in daily life, as well as in their Mary Gardens.”

“Through their rich medieval theological and devotional content, the flower symbols inspire fresh reflection on and prayerful devotion and recourse to Mary,” Mr. Stokes said at the time.

I’m thinking that this year I might try to make my attempts at incorporating Mary into my garden more formal. I’m realizing, as I write this, that I’m well on my way without even trying. I just need to regroup, find that statue that has been alluding me, and start digging.

In addition to Mary’s Gardens Web site, another resource for Mary-centered gardens and other spiritual gardening ideas is Catholic Traditions in the Garden (OSV) by Ann Ball.

Here are some photos of the Mary flowers that have bloomed so far this spring in my yard:

Vinca Minor, also known as Virgin Flower:

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Trillium, also known as Trinity Lily, in red and white:

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Bleeding Heart or Mary’s Heart:

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Grape Hyacinth, also known as Church Steeples:

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Snowdrops, also known as Candlemas Bells:

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There’s more, but you get the idea. When I finally get a “true” Mary Garden going, you’ll be the first to know. Well, maybe not the first, but the second for sure.

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