May is a month to celebrate and honor the Virgin Mary. This is because it is the time when the flowers in our gardens begin to bloom in earnest. As the earth springs forth, puts on her most beautiful raiment, and fertility is all about, it is natural to make the connection to motherhood. Mary is not only the mother of Our Lord, but the Queen and Mother of all creation. Flowers are a wonderful sign of the beauty of our continuing relationship with her.
There is a long tradition of honoring Mary with flowers. The medieval writer, Chaucer, writes that Mary is the “Flower of flowers.”
The tradition is alive and well today. For instance, we know that Pope Francis has a habit of bringing her the gift of a bouquet. He is one of many who, over the years, have done so. The practice was so common, in fact, that these bouquets used to have a proper name, “Assumption Bundles,” because they were often gifted to her to celebrate the day she joined Jesus in Heaven.
Often in May, a celebration is organized called a May Crowning in which a crown made of flowers is placed upon the brow of Mary. I was interested recently to discover that there is actually a proper antiphon for the celebration. More typically, though, hymns accompany the crowning and one the most popular is “Bring flowers of the rarest.” In it, we sing,
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!
Mary herself is described as the purest, most beautiful flower, Queen of the month of May.
It isn’t only in song that Mary is compared to a flower, but in images of her she is often depicted holding a flower or with flowers nearby. There are many, many examples of this, perhaps my favorite painting is the one by George Hitchcock of the Annunciation. In it, the flowers stand in for the Angel Gabriel who is also associated with lilies, but neither Mary nor St. Gabriel are selfish and the flower can symbolize either.
Because of this connection with Mary and flowers, over the centuries countless flowers have been named in her honor or have come to symbolize aspects of her motherhood and femininity. I truly do mean “countless.” There is no way to list them all here.
A few of my favorites:
Known as Our Lady’s Earring because Mary heard the word of God and responded
“I am the rose of Sharon, a lily of the valley.” – Canticles 2:1. And how can we forget “Lo, how a rose ere blooming”
Roses and lilies were said to be found in Mary’s empty tomb after her assumption. St. Bede saw the translucent lily petal as a symbol for her soul and it is fitting that a variety of white day-lily tends to bloom during the time of the feast of the assumption
The color stands for humility, and St. Bernard referred to Mary as “the violet of humility.”
St. Bernard describes it as “the golden gillyflower of heaven.”
Our Lady’s Slipper Named for her visit to her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country. There are all manner of these flowers named like this. For instance: Our Lady’s Mantle, Our Lady’s Tresses, Our Lady’s Tears, Our Lady’s Milk Drops
Manger Plants – Holy Hay, Cradlewort, Our Lady’s Bedstraw
All are said to have bloomed in the crib of Jesus
Literally named “Mary” in the Latin classfication: Silybum Marianum
I have lived my whole life and never considered that a Marigolds is actually a “Mary Gold”. Used in a medieval medicine to ward off the plague, the gold of the flower symbolizes Mary’s glory and place in heaven with the saints.
Aka “Fleur de Lis” or “sword lily”, The iris symbolizes Mary’s sorrow and the sword that pierces her heart
For those who are serious gardeners, you can easily combine any of these flowers into a “Mary Garden” These can be serene, natural places that calm the soul and also honor Mary.