Some readers may never even have heard of a Mary Garden. These gardens are very common in countries where the Virgin Mary is revered and they usually include a statue of Mary, as part of the garden design.
Often found in religious settings where people report a visitation by the Virgin, these gardens are famous for the peace they bring to the visitor.
Commonly found in convents, monasteries and religious sites of importance like Lourdes in France, a traditional Mary Garden is planted with certain colors and plants that have a connection to the saint historically.
Even if you have no religious beliefs, this is the perfect space to provide a calm place for contemplation, meditation, and quiet enjoyment in our busy modern world.
Let’s look at the symbolism of these plants first, and then ways to make a peaceful garden in any corner you choose, whether it is on a balcony, a patio or an unloved shady corner of your outdoor space.
What is the symbolism of the flowers?
These gardens celebrate the virgin birth, with the white flowers signifying her innocence and purity, while the blue flowers echoed the colour of the robe she wore, described by those she appeared to. The herbs and shrubs planted were used for their scent and their healing powers.
Many of the flowers refer to Mary in their name or include “Lady” or Our Lady, a phrase often used in prayers to the saint. The planting is quite traditional in Mary Gardens but it can be adapted to suit your garden space, and also depending on whether it is in shade or sun.
Followers of the Catholic religion believe in the birth of a child to a virgin called Mary, and our modern-day Christmas celebrations are birthday celebrations for her child, Jesus Christ.
- The Marigold (Calendula Officinalis) is said to mean Mary’s gold, and it is believed that poorer Christians (who had no gold to offer) used to place these flowers on shrines in place of gold offerings.
- Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita) is also known as Bible Leaf or the Camphor plant, maybe due to the delicious scent of its edible leaves, which is close to eucalyptus with a dash of mint.
- Mary’s Tears is a common name for Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) and this flower is a regular in almost every Mary Garden. The hanging white bells are wonderful when in season in early spring. Be careful with children or pets though because this one is poisonous if consumed.
- Our Lady’s Gloves (or Fingers) are Foxgloves (Digitalis) for the soft texture and the way a flower is just the right size for a finger! They deserve a place if your garden is shady, their bright spikes of blooms will provide colour in May and last until autumn as a background for other plants. This flower is processed and used medically for heart conditions but do not eat it because it is poisonous!
- Mary’s Praise is another name for flowering petunias. These annual blooms come in many colours and add a splash of summer colour.
- Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) offers a beautiful scent used for strewing and ceremonies and smells heavenly in your backyard.
- Lady’s Keys (Primula veris) is another name for the Cowslip, with its drooping flowers seen as the shape of an old-fashioned key.
- The Madonna Lily (Lilium candidum) is another favourite for its white blooms.
- Our Lady’s Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) brings a dash of purplish blue to the colour scheme.
- Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) is a good choice to offer green foliage to show the brilliance of bright white flowers.
Other plants could include:
- Mary’s Star is the common daisy found on lawns and made into daisy chains.
- Mary’s Drying Plant (Lavender) was said to have been used to lay down the body, from the crucifixion. In your garden, its scent can permeate the whole area.
- Blue irises (from the iridicae family with 30 different flowers) are chosen for their deep blue and white petals.
- Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary) has scented leaves, with blue flowers later in the season, and the colour is a typical addition to Mary Gardens.
- Our Lady’s Modesty is the tiny violet, with minute, purple flowers. Legend has it that the purple flower first appeared when the Archangel Gabriel spoke to Mary and she replied to the news of her pregnancy with the famous “I am the handmaid of the Lord.”
Monastic Herbs for Your Mary Garden
Traditionally these included herbs for strewing – bed straw types and those known for their healing properties such as Sage and Rosemary.
In the Catholic church, certain herbs are still used in ceremonies such as Benediction, where burning herbs permeate the interior of the church, the scent emanating from a ceremonial holder held and shaken by a priest celebrating the mass.
If you know Native American traditions, such as the burning of Sweetgrass, Sage, Cedar or Tobacco in ceremonies, these plants and herbs can be planted to bring that same reverence and peace to your garden. The scents linger in the area where visitors sat for prayer, meditation or pure relaxation.
To achieve these scents, try Hyssop, Meadowsweet, Sage, Rosemary and Tansy here in the UK while in other parts of the world, you can choose sweet-smelling herbs and flowers that grow well where you live.
Incorporating Local Plants
Obviously, gardeners will use the plants that are native to and grow well in their area, while adhering to the general idea. In Knock, which is situated in southern Ireland, the horticulturalist designer chose plants native to the whole island of Ireland including the northern 6 counties, thereby invoking a message of peace so that the garden became a symbol for pilgrims of plants used to show the harmony between north and south. The plants themselves show a diversity of environments and habitats and become an intrinsic element of these sacred spaces.
8 Countries Where You Can Visit a Mary Garden.
The earliest known Mary Garden is a seventh-century herbal garden built in Breuil, France, built by an Irish monk, Fiacre, who emigrated there and made a garden for “herbal medicine”.
Fiacre is the patron saint of gardeners too! At that time, monasteries grew food including vegetables and fruit to feed the monks and also a selection of herbs to have access to medicine. There was also an oratory for the Virgin Mary which is now recognised as the first Mary Garden.
Our Lady of Lourdes, France
This location has a statue of Mary in the cave where Bernadette Soubirous is said to have seen an apparition appear in 1858. The siting of the gardens was common in places where miracles and curing are reputed to have occurred.
In Lourdes, the water from the spring there is claimed to help aid recovery from numerous illnesses and maladies. Nowadays there are over three million visitors to Lourdes every year and the Mary Garden is actually the whole shrine, but particularly this small cave, where she was first reportedly seen.
Our Lady’s National Shrine in Knock, is where 15 people observed an apparition of Mary in 1879. In 1983, work began on creating a garden dedicated to Our Lady, using flowers with a connection to her from every county in Ireland, that is the 28 counties in southern Ireland and the 6 counties of the North.
Anne Hopkins Lavin, the Shrine horticulturist, chose 73 plants and flowers with relevance to Our Lady and created a garden with raised beds, using local stone to plant these 73 varieties.
The Artane Mary Garden of Remembrance in Dublin is situated on the north side of Dublin, providing a green lung in a busy urban centre.
The Manila Observatory offers another fine example.
The Ambos Mundos (Both Worlds) Hotel had a beautiful Mary Garden in Havana but lives on only in memories and photos as it has now been demolished.
The Akita Mary Garden in Japan is dedicated to a wooden statue of the virgin, and celebrates an apparition reported in 1973.
Lincoln Cathedral has a cloister planting dedicated to Our Lady.
The Mother Garden at Woods Hole, and the Mary Gardens at Saint Mary’s Parish, Annapolis in Maryland, which are located close to the historic Carroll House.
How do I prepare the site of my Mary Garden?
For me, these gardens have always provided a tranquil, beautiful, scented, peaceful space to contemplate whatever issues mattered to me. If you have ever visited Zen or Buddhist gardens, I find the atmosphere to be very similar although the planting may be different.
This is often a corner or sheltered garden which allows you to simply think (or not think) quietly. It is your garden, so choose a spot you love and then make a plan so that you have flowers in bloom for most of the year. For some ideas, mine is below.
My version of the Mary Garden.
Planting includes both white and blue flowers, green foliage and herbs in blue pots.
- This spot only gets direct sunlight for a few hours early in the day and again later in the evening. So this is usually a shady spot, filled with a white chair, a white wall and a climbing white rose, fragrantly blooming from June through to Autumn.
- Blue flowers there are provided by ongoing planting; Grape Hyacinths early in the spring, followed by forget-me-nots in early May, then bluebells. A few alliums sometimes sneak into this space in a pot in May.
- I have a jumping metal fish diving into the scene and I am mindful of the intricate shadow patterns on my white chair. This is my spot for drawing and relaxing, taking some respite from the hot sun but there is a tiny Black Madonna I bought while travelling in Brazil, who is disguised by the branches but she is visible from where I sit. A Buddha (or any other statue) can be built into your design.
- By June, my Philadelphus (Mock Orange) scent fills the air with its gorgeous sprays of white blooms and Rosemary’s blue flowers are decorating the pot. I chose mainly blue pots and then change the plants so that something is always in flower and there is food for the visiting pollinators. The spiked plant is a Mullein, whose dried foliage delights me.
- By September, Delphiniums, Oxeye daisies and Silverweed are my favourites and the blue hydrangea flowers come into their own. Balmy happy days!
From now on when you travel, you may spot a Mary Garden in a quiet, secluded area of a cathedral garden and understand the significance.
Do let me know if I have missed one out where you live! I hope you can create a scented, peaceful garden area in the same style in your own space, using appropriate local flowers and scents. Use it daily and allow the peace to permeate your daily life. Enjoy!
- St. Clare Garden – Santa Clara University (scu.edu)