Mary's Garden

by Natalie Pastor

The Mary or Bible garden is usually a small walled garden that is part of a cloister, cemetery, or wayside shrine. Out of sight, these gardens provide a sanctuary, a spot for meditation or contemplation. Statuary is often a focal point in the garden, it could be a small statue of the Madonna and Child, St. Frances of Assisi, St. Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners; or a simple engraved stone with these words from The Little Flowers of St. Francis "Be thou praised, my Lord, of our Sister Mother Earth, Which sustains and hath us in rule, and produces divers fruits with coloured flowers and herbs."
Our Southwest climate is similar to the Holy Land and we know that trees such as the Date Palm, Bay Laurel, Acacia, the Olive and Pomegranate are all mentioned in the Bible. Many of our familiar garden herbs are also mentioned. Garlic, Rue, Mint and Dill. Some experts think Mint was one of the "bitter herbs" mentioned in Exodus 12:8 and Numbers 9:11. A digestive herb, Mint was believed to be included as part of a salad along with other green potherbs such as Endive, Chicory, Watercress, Sorrel, and Dandelions. People who lived in biblical times commonly used herbs for both food and medicine.
There is a great deal of debate and confusion surrounding the interpretation of the herbs mentioned in the Bible. For instance Hyssop (Hyssopos officinal), also called St. Joseph's Plant, is often referred to as the herb used in purification rites (Psalms 51:7) The biblical Hyssop is probably not the same Hyssop we know. According to bible scholars, the biblical Hyssop may have been Marjoram, the Caper plant, or even Sorghum. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance many of the plants that came to be associated with the Bible or Mary gardens had previously been associated with pagan deities. Plants sacred in Roman and Greek mythology, and in the other ancient European and Anglo traditions were transferred to the Madonna and other Christian figures. In their rush to cover over the pagan ways, the early church fathers reinterpreted folklore to fit with the Christian tradition. The old woodcuts and illuminated manuscripts of the period show European herbs rather than those indigenous to the Holy Land. It's all very confusing. However, there is a wealth of beautiful herbs that are prefixed with My Lady or a saint's name. These herbs have taken on a romantic association with the Bible and in planning a Mary Garden for today it would seem fitting to use these herbs.
If you would like to put in a traditional Mary garden, a simple knot pattern or four square beds with a statuary focal point, scaled to fit your area, would be one option. Another idea is to tuck a small Mary garden in a hidden corner. Keep it hidden by surrounding it with walls, grape vines or trellis covered with vines or old climbing roses. Here is a list of some of the more fragrant and healing herbs that became associated with the Bible or Mary, as they suggested her sweetness and maternal love.

Angelica or Angel's Plant (Angelica archangel)
Basil or Holy Communion Plant (Ocimum basilicum)
Borage or St Joseph's Staff (Borago officin.)
Cabbage Rose or The Virgin's Rose (Rosa Centifolia)
Clary or Christ's Eye (Salvia sclarea)
Clove Pink or Virgin Pink (Dianthus caryophyllus)
Costmary or Our Lady's Balsam (Chrysanthemum balsamita)
Creeping Thyme or Mary's Bedstraw (Thymus serphyllum)
Dill or Devil-Away (Anethium graveolens)
Elecampagne or Adam's Root (Inula helenium)
Hyssop or St. Joseph's Plant (Hyssopos officin.)
Lady's Mantle or Lady's Mantle (Achemilla vulgaris)
Lavender or Mary's Drying Plant (Lavandula spp.)
Lemon Balm or Sweet Mary (Melissa officin.)
Madonna Lily or Mary Lily (Lilium candidum)
Maiden Hair Fern or Our Lady's Hair (Adiantum cap vener)
Mullein or Mary's Candle (Verbascum thapsus)
Orris Root or Madonna Iris (Iris florin., blue)
Our Lady's Bedstraw (Galium verum)
Pot Marigold or Marygold (Calendula officin.)
Rosemary or Mary's Nosegay (Rosmarinus officin.)
Rue or Herb O'Grace (Ruta graveolens)
Sage or Mary's Shawl (Salvia officinalis)
Soapwort or Lady by the Gate (Saponario officin.)
Sweet Bay or St Bridget's Flower (Laurus nobills)
Sweet Marjoram or Mother-of-God's (Majorana hortensis)
Sweet Violet or Our Lady's Modesty (Viola odorata)
Thyme or The Virgin's Humility (Thymus vulgaris)

Many other herbs mentioned in the Bible are not usually grown in the Southwest. Some have a negative context such as Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). Mandrake is mentioned in Genesis 30:14-16 where Rachel requests the mandrakes that belonged to Rueben, apparently for their magical qualities as an aphrodisiac. Mandrake is sometimes called love apple or devil's apple. The Bible herbs we are most familiar with are of course, Frankincense and Myrrh. Frankincense, is the gummy resin from a small thorny tree called Boswellia sacra, which grows in the Middle East. It has been used for religious rites for centuries and is mentioned in the first 5 books. Sap from the trees oozes out and forms nodules which then harden in the air. They are burned for their fragrant aroma. Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) is a gummy resin, used by the Egyptians and Hebrews for incense, cosmetics, perfumes, and medicines. Both these herbs are still among the most highly prized herbs in the world.
Why not create a special garden to soothe your soul, surround yourself with herbs that have a symbolic meaning and remember that "One is nearer God's heart in a garden Than any place else on earth."

Copyright N. Pastor 1999