The Garden Way of the Rosary

Author: John S. Stokes Jr.


John S. Stokes Jr.

In the 12th century St. Bernard spoke of the Blessed Virgin Mary as "The rose of charity, the lily of chastity, the violet of humility and the golden gillyflower of heaven", and in the 13th St. Francis of Assisi was reported to have taken care not to step on even the least flower, as it was a symbol of Mary, "The Flower of the Field"; but it is not known just when the Marian and other Christian symbolical flower names actually became widespread in the oral traditions of the European countryside. The earliest record we have found of a flower named for Mary is "Seint Mary gouldes" ("Saint Mary's Golds") included in a 1373 recipe as one ingredient of a potion sent to 'distroie the pestilence'."

We do know that Marian flower symbols must have been prevalent in Catholic culture by the 16th century because of the many Christian names given to Latin American flowers following the travels there of Spanish and Portuguese missionaries—such as the naming of the American marigold (Tagetes) from its perceived resemblance to the European Marygold (Calendula), and also the naming of the American Passion Flower (Passiflora) from its parts seen to recall Christ's lash, crown of thorns, nails of the Cross, and other instruments of his Passion symbolized individually by various European flowers. Also, in the 16th century, illustrations incorporating symbolic flowers were found, for meditation, in French and Flemish Books of Hours. From this we conclude that flower symbols of Our Lady probably had became prevalent in the countrysides by the 15th century.

It was also in the 15th century that the practice was adopted of meditating on selected Mysteries of Mary's life while praying the Aves of the Rosary. The praying of Hail Marys using prayer beads was introduced as a popular outgrowth of the praying of the 150 Psalms of the Psalter for the souls of the deceased, reported from the 8th century. For wider use, the lengthy monastic praying of the psalms was simplified by the 12th century through the praying in their place of 150 or 50 Our Fathers, on "Paternoster beads; and, then, in the 13th, by the praying of 150 or 50 Hail Marys in Mary's praise in the "Psalter of Our Lady". With the addition, by the 15th century, of the meditations on Mary's Mysteries, the Rosary, now prayed for general intentions, was widely promulgated in its present form through the zeal of Blessed Alan de la Roche, (c.1428-1475).

The name "Rosary", meaning a garland or bouquet of roses, was given to the Psalter of Our Lady as a consequence of "an early legend which after traveling all over Europe, penetrating even to Abyssinia, connected this name with a story of Our Lady, who was seen taking rosebuds from the lips of a young monk when he was reciting Hail Marys and to weave them into a garland which she placed upon her head. A German metrical version of this story is still extant dating from the thirteenth century." (Catholic Encyclopedia (1912) Vol 13, p.187).

Alan de la Roche attributed the praying of the Rosary for pressing community concerns to St. Dominic, who was said by legend to have had a private revelation by Mary requesting this, and the practice soon became universal in the Church. Although scholars have found no support for the revelation of the Rosary in the writings or contemporary records of St. Dominic, this concern is now largely academic following upon Mary's appearance at Lourdes and Fatima exhorting the praying of the Rosary, in each instance holding a string of Rosary beads in her hands.

The observation by those with spiritual vision of flower "pneums" issuing and rising heavenwards from the lips of persons praying the vocal Paters and Aves of the Rosary is evidently reflected in the original Communion Verse for the Mass for feast the Rosary of Mary (October 7th), established in 1573,:

Send forth flowers as the Lily,
and yield a fragrance,
And bring forth leaves in grace,
and praise with canticles,
And bless the Lord in his works."

Sirach 39:13-14 (Ecclesiasticus 39:18-19)

The Rosary prayer pneums, originally uttered in Mary's praises and seen as woven by her into a garland and placed on her head, are now envisaged also as petitionary prayers passing through the hands of Mary Mediatrix and. with enhancement and embellishment by her, "making our prayers hers", transported by angels to Christ and the Trinity, through whom they are graced with blessings, and then, again through her hands, returned to earth as a response of grace to the petitions prayed for. This is represented in the heavenly tableau of Mary's appearance at Knock in Ireland with her hands in special channeling position.

In the Mary Garden we have found it fitting to place the reflections quickened by the Flowers of Our Lady in the context of the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary; and to conclude the mental petition of the closing prayers of the Rosary, "that while meditating these mysteries of the Blessed Virgin Mary we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise, through Christ Our Lord. Amen"

As the three Aves at the beginning of the Rosary are employed to place the five mysteries about to be meditated on for the day in the context of the full fifteen Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries, so, on entering the Mary Garden, and before considering the individual symbolism of the flowers, we similarly dispose ourselves to this full meditative context as we reflect how all white flowers symbolize the Joyful Mysteries, red and purple flowers the Sorrowful Mysteries, and yellow and gold flowers the Glorious Mysteries.

Then, as we draw closer to the flowers we are reminded by their beauty of the beauty of Mary's holiness as "Flower of flowers" (Chaucer); and by their spotless, translucent purity of her immaculate spiritual purity through which she was open to the fullness of grace—bestowed in accordance with God's desire, will and plan for all creation, and especially for humans created to this end in the divine image and likeness, to share, show forth and participate in to the fullest the divine goodness and creating, saving, and sanctifying action.

Finally, as we behold each flower we reflect and meditate on the particular mystery or aspect of Mary's life it symbolizes (see the accompanying article, "Flower Theology.")—praying that we may imitate Mary's virtues, excellences and holiness mirrored by it, and then, through her sure petitions, intercession and mediation, obtain the graces it promises, as shown forth in all fullness in her.

It is fitting that the religious flower symbolism of nature and that of the Rosary are reunited at Knock, where the Mary Garden planted at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in 1983 is believed to be the first established at a national Marian Shrine, and following upon which the entire grounds have been planted with flowers, making the whole shrine, as it were, a magnificent Mary Garden:

From the Knock Shrine Annual, 1991:

"Magic Carpet of Colour

"If some of us had, over the years, thought of Knock as a grey colourless place we would surely have had second thoughts last summer. Early in the spring, Anne Lavin and her team of gardeners were busily at work planting and sowing thousands of bulbs, plants and seedlings. Between them they created a magic carpet of colour. It was something that must have been noticed by all pilgrims as several spoke of its beauty.

"Every available inch of the Shrine grounds was filled with magnificent blooms: roses, gladioli and delphiniums rose above swathes of antirrhinums, poppies and petunias—a magnificent blaze of colour stretching from the Gable almost as far as the eye could see, and, as it happened, seen mostly under a blue sunny sky. It was a new and splendid attraction at Knock, comparable with any formal garden wherever one might seek it, and a perfect setting for peaceful meditation."

This article was taken from Mary's Gardens Home Page at (

Mary's Gardens was founded in 1951 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to research the hundreds of flowers named in medieval times as symbols of the life, mysteries and privileges of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus—as recorded by botanists, folklorists and lexicographers; and to assist in the planting of "Mary Gardens" of "Flowers of Our Lady" today.

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