Plant symbolism in our Catholic tradition follows centuries of assigned meanings as a way to reflect God in visual ways through his creation. Parables, metaphors, doctrine of signatures, and thousands of folktales have guided the faithful through pre-literary times.
Studying the appellation of plants, and associated legends, has been a delight for nearly two decades.
A fun book that I came across years ago, from the late 1800s, Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics, is part of the fee eBook assemblage from Project Gutenberg. Here is a page from that book (footnote below) about a few of the plants of the Nativity.
We have seen that at the birth of Christ, the infant Jesus was laid on a manger containing Galium verum, at Bethlehem, a place commemorated by the Ornithogalum umbellatum, or Star of Bethlehem, the flowers of which resemble the pictures of the star that indicated the birth of Jesus.
Whilst lying in the manger, a spray of the rose-coloured Sainfoin, says a French legend, was found among the dried grass and herbs which served for His bed. Suddenly the Sainfoin began to expand its delicate blossoms, and to the astonishment of Mary, formed a wreath around the head of the holy babe.
In commemoration of the infant Saviour having laid on a manger, it is customary, in some parts of Italy, to deck mangers at Christmas time with Moss, Sow-Thistle, Cypress, and prickly Holly: boughs of Juniper are also used for Christmas decorations, because tradition affirms that the Virgin and Child found safety amongst its branches when pursued by Herod’s mercenaries. The Juniper is also believed to have furnished the wood of the Cross on which Jesus was crucified.
At Christmas, according to an ancient pious tradition, all the plants rejoice.In commemoration of the birth of our Saviour, in countries nearer His birthplace than England, the Apple, Cherry, Carnation, Balm, Rose of Jericho, and Rose of Mariastem (in Alsatia), burst forth into blossom at Christmas, whilst in our own land the day is celebrated by the blossoming of the Glastonbury Thorn, sprung from St. Joseph’s staff, and the flowering of the Christmas Rose, or Christ’s Herb, known in France as la Rose de Noel, and in Germany as Christwurzel.
Folkard, Richard. Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics: Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-lore of the Plant Kingdom. (London: Sampson Low, 1884) 44-45.
Let us continue to pray for one another, and that we can strive for a blessed and holy Christmas season through these difficult times. I’ll return after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.