Posted: December 12, 2011
Herbs, ancient plants that have come down through the ages, are filled with legend and lore. Think about using these symbolic plants when decorating this season. Whether you call it a crèche or manger scene, instead of using straw, look into the legends of herbs and add them to create an aromatic feel to the ancient story. The thyme, sage, and lavender that we grow in our gardens today are descendants of the very plants which were being grown and used two thousand years ago. All of the plants listed below are familiar plants which you might already have growing in your own gardens.
Bedstraw (Galium verum) is often called Our Lady’s’ Bedstraw because it was said to be used in the manger. Bedstraw grows well in the Holy Lands and is considered one of the “flowers of the field”. Legend says that before the birth of Christ, bedstraw had a white flower and after the birth the flowers turned deep gold in recognition of the herb’s role as a manger herb. It was once used to stuff mattresses and today it is used in potpourri and herb pillows.
Lavender (lavandula) symbolizes purity and virtue. “Spikenard” is the Biblical term for lavender. Lavender is said to have received its lovely scent because it was used as the drying rack for Baby Jesus’ swaddling clothes. Also it is thought that Mary’s clothes turned blue from contact with the lavender flowers. Lavender was used as an insect repellent and it was also used to ward off pestilence. Lavender grown in today’s garden should not be heavily pruned after August so that the plants are able to harden before winter. Wait to prune in the spring until new growth has broken from the old stems. In the spring shear your plants back heavily every 2-3 years but do not cut into the old viable wood.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) represents love and loyalty. Known in the Holy Land as “Dew of the Sea”, ancients often wore sprigs of rosemary around their heads to improve their memory. If only that were true! Legend has it that rosemary will not grow taller than Jesus when he was on earth - 6 feet - or live longer than his 33 years. Another story tells that the plant is fragrant because Mary laid her garments on the branches and after she spread her cloak over the herb, the white flowers turned blue. I do not have much luck growing rosemary in or out of the house but every year I try again.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) symbolizes immortality. “How can a man grow old who has sage in his garden?” is an ancient proverb much quoted in China. It has been said that Joseph and Mary were fleeing Herod’s men and Mary hid behind a large sage plant. The soldiers passed her by, without suspecting a thing. Since that time, the sage plant has been considered sacred and is believed to possess many curative powers. There are many varieties of the sage plant and they are some of my favorites in the garden. They are bee and hummingbird magnets!
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a manger herb that symbolizes bravery and courage. It is native to Europe and Asia, and it grows wild upon the hills of the Holy Land. There are many different thymes, some are mat-forming ground covers and some are more upright-growing. To maintain the mat type, shear off the dead branches to the new growth in the spring. The larger shrub may get leggy and needs to be sheared down to about six inches above the ground in the spring every three years or so.
Garden Rue (Ruta graveolens) is the herb of grace and is said to banish evil. Rue is one of the plants mentioned by Jesus in his rebuke of the Pharisees. Legend designates rue as one of the manger herbs. It is native to the Mediterranean region and common in many areas of Palestine. Rue is heavily scented, with bitter tasting leaves widely regarded as a medicinal cure-all. Rue was an important strewing herb and anti-plague plant. It is said to have inspired the design of the suit of clubs in playing cards. This is another one of my favorite plants. It lasts a long time in flower arrangements and its smell keeps my cat away. Be careful of the sap because it can cause a rash. This plant needs to be cut back to six to eight inches in the early spring.
Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) symbolizes wisdom and is native to the Holy Lands and also is one of the sweet manger herbs. It has bright green leaves with a pleasant aroma. It is used to repel mosquitoes and fleas and the flowers attract bees. Legend is that pennyroyal bloomed at midnight on Christmas Eve in Christ’s honor.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is listed as one of the herbs of the manger and is a plant I have not grown in my garden. It is a member of the mint family that grows about eighteen inches high and has heart shaped leaves which have a bitter flavor. This herb has been valued for centuries and is used to treat respiratory infections.
I hope this article encourages you to start your own Advent herb garden. I love my herb garden because it stays green all summer, and even today (December 3rd as I write) I can walk through my garden and enjoy the fragrance of the plants. All the herbs listed here are perennials with the exception of rosemary which is a tender perennial. They are all Mediterranean plants which means they thrive in dry conditions. But one of the best parts of having an herb garden is that the rabbits do not like herbs.
This year celebrate the holidays by adding some herbs to your Christmas decorating. Tuck a sprig of rosemary or lavender into your holiday ribbons to add a personal touch to your Christmas wrappings. Or just take a walk through your herb garden on Christmas Eve and think about the role these plants had on that very special day.
The opening quote is taken from the foreword to “The Season of Advent; Herbal Symbolism, Projects, Garden Design & Recipes” by Don Hayne.
Denise Dornbush is a Penn State Extension Master Gardener from Adams County. Penn State Cooperative Extension of Adams County is located at 670 Old Harrisburg Road, Suite 204, Gettysburg. Call 334-6271.