The Garden as Catechism

Phil Peters
Adam's County Master Gardener Program

As we get into the beginning of a new gardening year, I thought it would be interesting to take some inspiration from the Easter season and see how some of our common garden plants have served not only as symbols for Christian beliefs but played a more practical role as teaching devices for missionaries trying to explain the complexities of Christianity to other cultures.

We all recognize that spring is the season of rebirth, bringing the promise of life after the harshness of winter. Consequently the first flowers that blossom in spring have long been associated with the promise of rebirth and/or resurrection.

Perhaps no flower is more closely associated with Easter than the Easter lily. The one we enjoy at this time are the Lilium longiflorum 'Nellie White.' In fact it would not seem like Easter without these gorgeous plants whose pure white blossoms remind Christians of the promise of salvation and resurrection, an association that has gone on since before the Middle Ages. One of the sources for this association comes from the Bible where, in Luke 12:27-28 and Matthew 6:28-29, Christ used the lily to teach God's concern for all of His creatures. While the lily excelled all other flowers in the beauty of its raiment, it was pale when compared with the glory that would clothe those faithful who pursued a devout life. Christ's listeners could easily relate to this since the lily species of the day was known to them. We could also mention the parable of the mustard seed (Matt 13:31-32) which we all have heard.

Following in Christ's footsteps Christian missionaries used plants to teach the rudiments of Christianity as they made their way around the world.

Perhaps the earliest reference to this is the story of St. Patrick of Ireland. In the fifth century Patrick, who had escaped a boyhood of slavery in Ireland and become a priest on European continent, returned to the island to convert the native Celts to Christianity. To explain the seemingly unexplainable three-in-one concept of the Trinity, three persons in one god, Patrick borrowed an idea from his Celtic predecessors. He took the shamrock, Trifolium repens, as a teaching device - three distinct leaves but one plant. The natives could relate to this, for their priests had used the symbol to illustrate the three-in-one concept of the universe -- earth, sky and sea. For Patrick the leaves represented the three distinct persons of the godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, yet they proceeded from the single stem.

Jesuit missionaries upon arriving in the New World seized on the Passion Flower, Passiflora spp., as both a sign that their mission would be successful and as a tool to teach the indigenous peoples about the passion of Jesus Christ. Indeed its name came from this association. They saw in the five sepals and the five petals the number (10) of apostles who remained faithful to Jesus. Remember, Peter had denied Christ and Judas had betrayed Him. The five stamens recalled the five wounds Christ received; the three elongated styles, the nails; the many filaments that surround the flower, the crown of thorns. The swirling tendrils were a reminder of the whips used in the scourging; and for some the lobed leaves reminded them of the reaching hands of the Roman soldiers present at the Crucifixion.

Along this line, sometime in the 1950s the American Dogwood was connected with the Passion of Christ. It claimed the tree had been used to make the cross and as a result was ever- afterward stunted and gnarled so it couldn't be so used in the future. The four petals made the shape of the cross, with the notch at the tips of the petals being reminders of the nails piercing the hands and feet of Christ. The center of the flower recalled the crown of thorns while the red berries called to mind the blood Christ shed.

For those who would like to learn more about this subject there are many websites that discuss flower symbolism. One in particular that is very thorough and offers many suggestions for incorporating these concepts into your own garden is

In addition there are several books on the subject of Bible-themed gardens that offer plant lists and other information that will help the gardener create a very personal kind of garden.

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