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Flora and the saints.

Two factors are seen in the association of plants with the names of saints: the tendency of the people to perceive reality in the light of faith, and the intimate relation they had with the surrounding flora that enabled them to use language in which objects of their milieu were used in their expressions.


There is a marked difference in the way in which the Bible looks at the plant thistle and popular association of thistles with the names of saints. In Biblical parlance, thistles are more associated with curses and hardships. The sins of our first parents brought a curse on the earth; the thorns and thistles, which the earth; has produced, are the result of this curse. The prophet Hosea ventures to the extent of warning Israel of the growth of thorns and thistles on their altars as the result of their idolatry. Our Lord sums up the relation between the tree and its fruit by a rhetorical question: "Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?"

It is amazing to see that our attitude to plants undergoes changes based on the perspective we assume because of a changed vision of reality. The burlesque drama of the rugged Roman soldiers plaiting a crown of thorns to make a mockery of Christ's kingship, with the passage of time becomes one of the most revered religious texts of all times. The crown of thorns becomes the crowning glory of Jesus venerated the world over. The cursed thistle of the old dispensation gains in the new age of faith a connection with Christ. The Scots even elevated the humble thistle as the heraldic emblem of Scotland.

St. Barnaby's thistle is the yellow star thistle, Centaurea solstitialis, flowering on or near St. Barnabas' day. The flowers of star thistles have a star-like arrangement of spiny bristles on the flower head. St. Barnabas was a fellow-labourer of St. Paul. Tradition has it that he preached the Gospel in Alexandria and Rome and founded the Cypriot church. He was martyred in 61 A.D. on Salamis, a Greek island. St. Barnabas day is celebrated on the eleventh of June. The day is called also Barnaby Bright; it is the longest day of the year, hence the doggerel:
 Barnaby bright! Barnaby bright
 The longest day and the shortest night.

Our Lady's thistle, silybum marianum, also called milk thistle, is said to be a cure for stitch in the side, or the aching pain in the side of the abdomen caused by exercise or laughing. According to the theory of signatures, nature has given a label to every plant, and the prickles of the thistle indicate its therapeutic value for the condition called pringles or stitch. It is believed that the plant owes the white marking on its leaves to milk from Our Lady's breast, some of which fell miraculously on the leaves of the plant. It is this that resulted in the nomenclature for the plant, Our Lady's thistle.


The lily is one of the flowers which have enjoyed unabated popularity in religious and literary writing for ages. According to some traditions, the lily sprang from the repentant tears of Eve as she went out of the Paradise with Adam, their feet heavy and slow and their mind weighed down with an irreconcilable sense of loss. The Old Testament captured the sheer beauty of the fragile grass. Some of the most spontaneous and the least inhibited celebrations of feminine beauty are rendered in poetic imagery strewn with delightful lily images, as in the Song of Solomon. Our Lord elevated the short-lived grandeur of the frail flower to further heights as the epitome of total dependence on a provident God, and points out that its helplessness has not deprived it of a majesty which the great king Solomon hardly reached when he appeared in a pageant, perhaps in clothes laced with frills made from the gold of Ophir.

The loveliness of the delicate lily and its transient glory that captured the fancy of sculptors and writers of the old dispensation reappeared under the new, in full vigour. When the Christian artist wanted to showcase the virtues of typical Christ-likeness that appeared in the impressive array of saints, his spontaneous choice was the lily. In Christian art, the lily is the emblem of innocence, purity and chastity. So Christian art depicts the herald of heaven, Gabriel, when he came to announce the glorious tidings, holding a lily. Mary, the finest flower of creation, herself was depicted kneeling in prayer beside a vase of cut lily flowers that stood on a chiseled wooden stand. Joseph, in Christian art representations, is invariably depicted holding a branch of lilies.

The lily known as the Madonna lily is the most significant flower symbol for Christians, and it suggested purity and virginity. Enjoying an enviable reputation over the centuries, it is utilized as a perfume component and since the second century has been mystically associated with the Virgin Mary.

The Venerable Bede (A.D. 672-735) portrayed the translucent white petals as symbolic of Mary's pure body, and the golden anthers as a symbol of the glory of her soul when she was taken up to Heaven. The poetic commentary by Oscar Wilde tells the humility of the Incarnation and makes mention of the lily:
 "And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand
 Before this supreme mystery of Love:
 Some kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
 An angel with a lily in his hand
 And over both the white wings of a dove."
 (From Ave Maria Gratia plena, by Oscar Wilde)

At first sight it is difficult to explain why, when other great rulers were assuming for their armorial emblems the lion, the eagle, etc., the sovereigns of Dance should have preferred the apparently humble lily (fleur-de-lys). But the flower had acquired a strong religious meaning and under the influence of Saint Bernard, the last of the Fathers of the Church who had such profound influence on Christendom, the Christic and Marial qualities as symbolized by the fragile lily were captured in the French emblems representing the royal dignity and Christian piety of the French kings.

The Bible does not speak of Mary shedding tears. But in popular imagination it is only natural to think of Mary shedding tears at some of the most painful and poignant moments of her life. One such moment was when she stood at the foot of the cross to watch the death of her son. Having pondered day in and day out on the mystery of her promised blessedness, Mary did indeed understand the dimensions of her unique blessedness that pitches its hope beyond this earth. The clatter of wood, the jangle of nail and mallet, the bawling of sturdy Roman soldiers, and the neighing of the worn-out horses that echoed around Calvary may have produced a gush of tears. Popular piety has no need of authenticated documentation before associating the Lily of the Valley with Mary's tears.


Worts are not mentioned in the Bible. However, in popular Christian piety they are much talked about. The most popular wort names in English are St. John's Wort, St. Peter's Wort, and Joseph and Mary, a popular name for lungwort.

St. John's Wort is one of the many plants associated with the celebrations of the summer solstice. The solstice is the day when the sun is farthest from the equator. It is commemorated on the twenty-first of June in the northern hemisphere. The Celts chose the plant for their solstice observances.

The feast of St. John the Baptist falls on the twenty-fourth of June and so the Christianized Celts shifted the focus of the celebration from a seasonal fest central in an agrarian society to that of a solemn spiritual observance to honour a great saint. They retained the flower component and it appeared as the St. John's Wort.

The mission of John, expressed in the prophetic words of Zechariah, is "to give light to those who sit in darkness." The flower of solstice festivities is retained in the celebration of the harbinger of new light under the new dispensation. The early Christians were keenly aware of the symbolic nature of the wort with the life of the saint.

The crowning glory of John's life is his martyrdom. According to tradition, he was beheaded on the twenty-ninth of August, the result of the flippant willingness of Herod to fulfil the callous wish of his dancing stepdaughter, Salome. Once the wort flowers have fallen, the plant appears "beheaded," and the red spots on the leaves, for the eyes permeated with faith, it is not hard to imagine, were blood drops spilt on the leaves.

St. John's Wort has been in favour for centuries as a potent remedy in treatment. It is considered a cure-all. It is used as a protective herb with ability to counteract the forces of darkness. The plant named after St. John the Baptist also possesses the saint's prophetic attribute of the dispeller of darkness. In lore centred on the plant, it is "a preservative against evil spirits, phantoms, spectres, storms, and thunder." An old ditty illustrates this:

St. John's wort, scaring from the midnight heath, the witch and goblin with its spicy breath.

No wort named after saints enjoys as much popularity as St. John's Wort.

St. Peter's Wort does not have as much medicinal potency as the more popular plant and lore associated with it. Why was the plant named so? Could it have been due to the larger size of the plant compared to St. John's Wort, to signify Peter's pre-eminence over the other saint? The logic of traditional lore is hard to understand. In Portugal where Peter is the patron of fishermen, on the feast day he is shown to carry two crossed keys. The resemblance of the plant to a bunch of keys may have earned it the name St. Peter's Wort.

Mary, being the finest flower of creation, has captured the fancy of folks across the continents. Some worts also derive their name from her. The chief among them is the Lungwort, known also as Mary's Milkdrops, Our Lady's Milk Herb, The Virgin Mary's Tears, and Joseph and Mary. Lungwort blooms early in spring. Its flowers start pink but turn blue as they age.

It is evident that popular-named flowers have a symbolic significance; often the process of assigning names springs from the religious and cultural perception of a faith community.

A. D. Paul writes on Catholic Culture and English Literature and Literature. He taught English in Bharat Mata College, a premier Catholic College in Cochin (South India) and served as the Principal and Professor of English. At the moment he works as English Language Trainer at The Chopras, a large company placing students in various universities around the world.
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Author:Paul, A.D.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:May 1, 2006
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