Early in Christian history, in a predominately illiterate world, symbols and legends helped to move forward the story of creation, God and the Incarnation. Often, Catholic faith concepts were conveyed through agrarian and plant analogies used in storytelling, paintings and architecture.
The joy of Easter and the Resurrection can still be expressed that way in our gardens or our patio pots — in an existing landscape, or if you’re creating a prayer garden. I am pleased to share with you just a few of the dozens of plants that can be grown in a garden setting. The symbolism they bear is another small way to feed the life of prayer while helping to move forward the story of salvation.
• Butterfly Weed, “Asclepias tuberosa.” Symbolism: letting go; remembrance; freedom
Thanks to the numerous butterflies that feed on this plant we can reflect on the caterpillar’s metamorphosis, which has long been used as an image of Our Lord’s resurrection. From the “tomb” of the cocoon emerges a glorious new life. In the modern language of flowers, the butterfly weed is indicative of letting go. This letting go of fear, and any reluctance to do God’s will in this world, will indeed lead to our own new life and resurrection in eternity.
• Calla Lily, “Zantedeschia” spp. Symbolism: hope; watchfulness; promise; rebirth
Some consider this bright-white trumpet shaped flower to herald Jesus’ victory over death. The symbolism of the calla lily points us toward Easter and the Resurrection.
It is easy for Christians to understand why this same plant, used at Easter and for weddings, is also considered a funerary flower. The flower’s trumpet is a symbol of fanfare and good news. New birth, hope and promise are all part of our faith in eternity — in life, after death.
• Delphinium, “Delphinium” spp. Symbolism: lightness; levity; ichthys; strong bond of love
The Delphinium flower’s bud resembles the shape of a dolphin, thus its botanical name, from the Greek. The dolphin was perceived by fishermen as a guide to safe harbor, often bringing joy to sailors long at sea — hence the ichthys, the familiar simple two-line fish symbol. The dolphin symbolizes resurrection and salvation, and in some paintings is seen bearing souls across earthly waters to the eternal world. The metaphors associated with delphiniums also are attributed to larkspurs and sometimes monkshood.
• Resurrection Lily, “Lycoris” spp. Symbolism: new life; resurrection
The six petals of “Lycoris,” with the larger gap at the bottom, indicate the incompleteness of humans (created on the sixth day) until we have new life through Jesus. In the species “Lycoris squamigera,” the yellowing of the petal blade that forms the iridescent center represents the leading light of Christ, and the bluing tips signify the heavenly eternity to which we are destined.
This plant exhibits a behavior called “hysteranthous.” It emerges, but then takes months to flower, devoid of leaves. The disappearance of the leaves helps us reflect upon Our Lord’s descent into darkness after his death. As Jesus was placed in the tomb, his followers had no hope for resurrection. But we do. We can meditate on the harrowing of hell and on Christ’s resurrection as we anticipate the blossoms.
• Daffodil, “Narcissus” spp. Symbolism: new life; divine love, especially after death; forgiveness
The daffodil is rich in Christian symbolism for new life, beginning with the Annunciation and including the Resurrection.
When we see the narcissus included in scenes of the Annunciation, it represents the triumph of divine love and eternal life over death. One legend says that at the Resurrection of Christ the daffodils all burst at once into bloom on that glorious morning. That glowing bouquet of daffs in our homes or bursting forth in our gardens can be a shining beacon of new life during Easter, reminding us of the light of Christ. This sense of rebirth also alludes to eternal life after death.
Spiritually dedicated gardens attend to the interior needs of mind and soul and encourage an openness that makes us attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This is not an abstract esoteric endeavor reserved only for the spiritually privileged. We are each of us mystics and can draw closer to the creator by contemplating the beauty and wonder of his creation.
Portions of this material have been excerpted from the book “A Garden Catechism: 100 Plants in Christian Tradition and How to Grow Them” (2022, OSV Publishing).
Margaret Rose Realy is a Benedictine Oblate and the author of “A Garden Catechism: 100 Plants in Christian Tradition and how to Grow Them” (OSV, 2022).