For gardeners with a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Mary garden is a good way to plant some lovely flowers, to honor the Lord's mother or to create a quiet prayer area.
The earliest written history of a Mary-inspired garden dates back to the 15th century. A list of plants purchased for "St. Mary's Garden" was recorded by the sacristan of Norwich Priory in England. According to Vincenzina Krymow, the author of "Mary's Flowers: Gardens, Legends, and Meditations," Mary gardens weren't planted in this country until 80 years ago.
"The first Mary garden that we know of was established at St. Joseph Church in Woods Hole on Cape Cod in 1932," Krymow says. "Called Garden of Our Lady it was created by Frances Crane Lillie, a wealthy woman from Chicago who first came to Woods Hole in 1891 to study biology.
"During her travels to Europe, 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 an academic friend, Winifred Jelliffe Emerson, to search early plant literature for plants with religious and Mary names," says Krymow.
"Her friend found Mary-named flowers in old botanical and folklore books, and together they planted and established the garden. Hurricanes destroyed the garden several times, but each time it was restored."
Almost all Mary gardens are maintained by Catholics, Krymow says. "The only one I know of (that is kept by another faith) is the one at the Episcopal Convent of the Transfiguration in suburban Cincinnati in Glendale."
Mary gardens usually feature an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary surrounded by special plants and herbs. Blue and white plants are favorites. Popular flowers are cornflower (Mary's Crown), forget-me-not (Eyes of Mary), blue larkspur (Mary's Tears), asters (Mary's Star), salvia, daisies, day lilies, lily of the valley (Our Lady's Tears), white roses (Mary's Purity), rose of Jericho, white tulips, blue and white iris (Madonna iris), white foxglove (Our Lady's Fingers), snowdrop, white violet (Mary's Delight) and bluebells (Our Lady's Thimble).
Other popular flowers are red, yellow or white roses, marigolds (Mary's Gold, representing Mary's glory on Earth and in Heaven), impatiens (Dear Mother's Love), zinnia (The Virgin), morning glory and pansies. Common Mary garden herbs include basil, creeping thyme, lavender, sage, spearmint and parsley.
Although many people, like Krymow, use a statue in their garden, Mary's image can also be a plaque, a mounted holy card, a weather-protected piece of art or a religious icon. "It doesn't matter where the statue goes," Krymow says. "Placement usually depends of the size and the layout of the garden. The statue may be at the end of a walk, in the center of the garden or in the back." Mary gardens can be well tended or wild, small or large.
As she has grown older, Krymow has downsized her own personal Mary garden. "For almost 20 years, while we lived in our house, I had a Mary garden behind our home," she says. "It started with a statue of Our Lady that I found in an old barn in Michigan and expanded to where not only the plants surrounding it were Mary's flowers but her flowers grew all over the back garden.
"We live in a condo now, and a small concrete Mary statue graces our patio," she says. "Her flowers and herbs, growing in pots, surround her." Those smaller plants include marigolds, pansies, roses, basil, parsley and lavender.
Even after studying and planting flowers and herbs in honor of Our Lady for several decades, Krymow says she is still moved when she comes upon a Mary garden. A Mary statue, with its serene expression, "brings peace if I am troubled, feelings of thanksgiving when I am in a happy mood, even sorrow if I'm feeling sad."
"For me, a Mary garden is a place to think about Mary," she concludes. "I give thanks for her many blessings and reflect on aspects of her life captured by the naming of the flowers."