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The Mary Gardens


During the month of May, I am whisked back to my childhood, and find myself thinking of one of my few happy memories in Catholic school: the May Crowning of the Blessed Mother. Although I consider myself a wayward Catholic, (and that is neither here nor there for this discussion) during this month, I cannot help but sing the refrains of “Immaculate Mary”, over and over, and “salve, salve, salve Maria…..” is running through my head. Long ago I read about the Mary Gardens, which have been in existence for as long as Mary has been associated with May. “A Mary Garden is a garden dedicated to Mary, wherein plants named after Mary surround a statue or other representation of Our Lady. During the Middle Ages the faithful saw Mary in life around them and named many plants after her. More than a thousand Mary-names of plants have survived.”

In my research of the Mary gardens, I learned that in many cultures, the month of May is traditionally dedicated to Mary: “May is considered the season of the beginning of new life. Already in Greek culture, May was dedicated to Artemis, the goddess of fecundity. In Roman culture, May was dedicated to Flora, the goddess of bloom, of blossoms. The Romans celebrated ludi florales (literally: floral games) at the end of April, asking the intercession of Flora for all that blooms. This is also related to the medieval practice of expelling winter.”

This year, in late winter, as I began my spring garden planning, something brought me to the Mary gardens, and I realize I am not far off track from establishing my own. Now, it helps that my first name is Mary – so I am her namesake – and possibly I just am attracted to flowers that are associated with MYSELF. But basically, I always felt a strong affinity to the Blessed Mother, and the idea of having a garden dedicated to her seems just right for me. As gardening has come to me late in life, I am only now beginning to be somewhat ready to go about planting a themed garden, and it is with great interest that I began to Google the Mary gardens.

For the sake of a little background into them, I began to read further, and found this: The first known Mary garden in the United States is thought to be “The Garden of Our Lady”, established in 1932 in Woods Hole on Cape Cod. Frances Crane Lillie of Chicago, first came to Woods Hole in 1894 to study at the Marine Biological Laboratory. She married Frank R. Lillie, who later became president and director of the MBL, and spent summers at Woods Hole until her death in 1958. She converted to Catholicism in the early 1920’s. “During her travels in Europe Mrs. Lillie had learned that English monastery gardens once included flowers with names associated with Our Lady. She wanted to create a garden in the “tradition of Mary Gardens throughout the world” and asked a friend, Winifred Jelliffe Emerson, to search early plant literature for plants with religious and Mary names. Mrs. Lillie’s original plan for the twenty foot square garden included sixty-one plants. Of these 33 were “Her Flowers,” seven “Flowers of the Saints,” and 21 “Other Religious Flowers,” many of them English wildflowers. This 1932 list was modified as some plants thrived and others fared poorly in the wind and rain-swept site; the 1937 final plan contained 48 plants. Prominent were roses, lilies and irises, all emblems of Mary. Hurricanes in 1938 and 1944 damaged the garden and each time it was replanted, but with fewer plants. The garden was restored to the 1937 plan for the parish centennial in 1982 by Jane McLaughlin and other parishioners.”

{For anyone interested, the garden consists of Blue and deep pink blooms of Virgin’s Tears (spiderwort); Our Lady’s Mantle (morning glory) and Virgin’s Bower (clematis); pale blues of Our Lady’s Resting Place (Germander Speedwell) and Madonna’s Pins (wild geranium). Cross-wort (purple loosestrife) grow; as well as pink phlox, cowslips, pinks, mums, tulips and daffodils, Victoria blue salvia, ferns and tiny yellow daisies. Tiny blossoms of deep blue and white lobelia grow as edging, forming a border. Tall bachelor buttons send up their blooms. The back of the garden contains heather, which blooms all winter, bleeding hearts, forget-me-not, yellow zinnias, strawflowers, pansies, dahlias, ferns, snapdragons, hosta, mums and roses, Johnny jumpups, yarrow and white daisies. Almost all of these plants have religious names. It sounds like a lovely place, with benches for meditation, and statues dedicated to the saints; on the water.]

From my reading I found this list of “Suggested Annual Flowers of Our Lady for a beginning Mary Garden”:

Cornflower – Mary’s Crown
Forget-me-not* – Eyes of Mary
Impatiens* – Mother Love
Larkspur – Mary’s Tears
Marigold* – Mary’s Gold
Morning Glory – Our Lady’s Mantle
Petunia* – Our Lady’s Praises
Poppy – Christ’s Blood
Snapdragon – Infant Jesus’ Shoes
Sweet Alyssum* – Flower of the Cross
Sweet Scabious – Mary’s Pincushion
Zinnia – The Virgin

This year as I wondered (and wandered) my own little garden, I realized that I already had the beginnings of a Mary garden in place, without even knowing it. My flowers include Bleeding Hearts, Petunias, Calla Lilies, Blue Angels, and Moses in the Cradle. Her Flower (blue Japanese iris, also known as Mary’s Sword of Sorrow), Thyme (Lady’s Bedstraw), and Virgin’s Bower (clematis). So although I have no crown for my Blessed Virgin statues, nor do I have a classroom of children to line up and sing my beloved “Mary songs”, this morning in my garden, before work, drinking my coffee, the air was as sweet as it was those many many years ago, when as a very shy little girl, I would brave Mrs. DiMelia’s scary siamese cats, and her thick italian accent, and ring her doorbell before school and ask her for flowers for the May crowning. Although she was straight off the boat from Italy, and spoke very little English, she knew the tradition, and proudly cut an armful of flowers from her beautiful and beloved gardens, for my participation in the procession.

Due to the rain, and our spring just beginning, I have no bouquets of flowers yet. So today I took the only flower ready for cutting, which are my buttercups, Pineapple mint and English Ivy (some might call these weeds!) and placed them in little vases, next to my Blessed Mary statues, and held my own procession. It was a lovely morning.

And now, off to work, with this song stuck in my head:

O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today!
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May.
Bring flowers of the rarest
bring blossoms the fairest,
from garden and woodland and hillside and dale;
our full hearts are swelling,
our glad voices telling
the praise of the loveliest flower of the vale!

*For more information, I used the following websites for research and quoted some of them above:
The Mary Page:
Mary’s Gardens:
Garden of Our Lady:

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What a lovely, interesting blog...thanks Poetgardener :)

22 May, 2009


I enjoyed that poetgardener, very interesting, i love the snapdragon, baby Jesus' shoes how sweet i have these in my garden self set ones, and a lot of the other flowers too, so i guess i can say i too have a Mary garden, thanks for this.

22 May, 2009


Beautiful & interesting blog - reminded me of my childhood and the "wonderful month of may" as the hymn went -

22 May, 2009


Absolutely fascinating reading, poetgardener!

Am going back to the top to read it all again. Many Thanks for sharing your research! :-)

22 May, 2009


Thaks so much for your kind comments! I found myself intriqued by this whole idea, and David, I remember SOMEONE here had a really neat theme garden, and it's YOU!

I'm glad Angie that it brought you back to a good memory! That's exactly how I felt when I began to read up on this. And isn't it funny that once you start looking at your garden, how many plants are named after Mary or other saints, etc?

Again, thanks for the thanks! I'm just glad I didn't bore you all half to death! lol!

23 May, 2009


Hi again, Pg! I've seen books in the past on plants named in the Bible, and also plants that are thought to have been referred to, if not named. This was also intriguing. Just an idea, should you want to extend your theme? :-)

23 May, 2009


Hello Poetgardener, I'm not a bit religious but I thought I'd offer another flower to add to your list;
COLLINSIA (Blue-eyed-Mary) (Innocence.

18 Oct, 2009


Hi Heron, Thanks for the suggestion. It' a nice name, that's for sure!

It's funny that you should mention it just now -- I revisited the web site the other day, where I first heard about the first Mary garrden's and actually thought I might take a little trip up there this past week - but alas other thing came up so I couldn't.

Anyway, I will keep this one in the hopper for next spring! Again, Many thanks!

18 Oct, 2009

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