Ladies and gentlemen let me take you on a little time travel as we go back to the middle ages and the time when plants were the only form of medicine and linked with myth and legend.
In an age when only wealthy people could read and church services were in Latin, people learnt the stories of the Bible through pictures painted on the interiors of church walls and through stories attached to flowers.
Here in the Garden we have our own medieval physic garden with each bed containing plants used for the ailments of a particular part of the body. In the same period many of these plants would be used to tell the Christmas story
Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) with its masses of foamy yellow flowers gets its common name from the legend that it was the straw that Mary lay upon to give birth to Jesus. Perhaps a more prosaic reason for the name would be that it was also used to stuff mattresses, presumably only for ladies! Corpses rested upon a bed of Bedstraw in their coffins.
Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) believed to help with lung complaints and in its symbolic meanings bookends the life of Christ. The white splashes on the leaves represent the milk that Mary fed to Jesus and the flowers that open blue and turn to pink represent the Virgin’s blue eyes which turn red with weeping at His death.
According to legend Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) by God to guide the wise men to the Christ Child. Once the star’s purpose was completed, God thought it was too beautiful to banish from the earth. Instead, the brilliant star burst into thousands of pieces and descended to the earth. The fragments of star gave birth to beautiful white flowers that blanketed the hillsides which became known as Star of Bethlehem.
The common or garden Daisy (Bellis perennis) beloved of children for making daisy chains and the scourge of gardeners looking for a perfect lawn is seen in its simplicity to represent the innocence of the Christ child. Whilst the white Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) represents the Virgin Mary in her purity and grace. The altars of churches and chapels in religious houses would be decorated with lilies to glorify the name of the Virgin. It is one of the oldest flowers in cultivation and its name (candidum) means purest white.
Before Christmas was the older festival of Saturnalia and Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe all had meanings associated with the winter solstice, eternal life and rebirth. To the Celts holly (Ilex aquifolium) represented the holly king of the winter solstice and it had magical properties because of its shiny leaves and ability to bear fruit in winter. The druids believed it stayed green to keep the earth beautiful whilst the magical leaves of the oak had disappeared for winter and people used it along with Ivy (Hedera helix) around their doors to repel evil spirits.
Mistletoe (Viscum album ) symbolising life and fertility by Celts was also seen as an aphrodisiac and protection against poison. In Norse mythology it was sacred to the Goddess of Love Frigga whose son was shot by Loki, Goddess of Mischief with an arrow made of mistletoe wood. Frigga revived her son and then blessed the tree so that anyone standing beneath it would be protected from death and would also deserve a kiss. And who can argue with that.
Have a wonderful Christmas, hopefully relax a little and maybe look again at the greenery we decorate our houses with and think of all those who have done so before us. Happy Christmas everyone.
Tricia Harris December 2019