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Gardening with Laurie: Legend of Christmas herbs

By By Laurie Garretson
Dec. 19, 2013 at 6:19 a.m.


Several Christmases ago, I wrote an article about the plants of the manger. I still get asked about it, so here it is again. Hope you enjoy it.

Herb plants of the manger, or Nativity, are not often written or talked about even though there was vegetation all around the Bethlehem area, including in Jesus' birth stable.

My favorite legends tell of lady's bedstraw (Galium verum), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) as the herbs of the manger.

Legend tells us that while Mary rested, Joseph gathered herbs and grasses to line the manger. Among his gatherings were bedstraw, a common stable plant easily found in fields and along roadsides. Farmers fed it to their milk cows to sweeten the milk. It was also used to stuff mattresses and pillows.

Legend points out that it was nothing more than a common weed with white flowers that had no fragrance. However, when the baby Jesus' head touched the lowly weed, it was forever changed. The flowers turned to a golden yellow color, and instantly, the foliage had a sweet, fresh scent.

Pennyroyal is another plant that Joseph is thought to have gathered for the manger. It was also considered a weed that was low-growing and did not bloom.

According to legend, Joseph picked it to line the manger because of its minty smell. The little herb burst into bloom at the moment of Jesus' birth and, since then, has bloomed a bright purple (the color of royalty) flower.

It's believed that the scent of these flowering herbs were pleasing to Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Another one of the herbs Joseph gathered was horehound, with its soft and velvety leaves. It was believed to have healing powers but also meant sorrows were to come. It was one of the bitter herbs placed on the Passover tables to commemorate the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

Horehound is thought to have symbolized Jesus' roots and foreshadowed a future betrayal.

It's said that Mary wept when she found horehound among the manger plants. Supposedly, she tried to remove the herb, but it was too tightly woven among the other plants, and her efforts were unsuccessful. As she picked through the plants, she also found thyme, a symbol of courage and endurance.

Two other herbs of the manger that were to later have a role in this story were lavender and rosemary. When Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus fled Bethlehem to escape King Herod's orders, they ran through a field thick with rosemary to escape the murderous soldiers. As they made their way through the dense vegetation, legend says that other shrubs crackled and whispered as the family ran through them and tangled their feet.

But rosemary shrubs silently parted, then closed the path behind them, preventing the soldiers from seeing them. Being a grateful mother, Mary offered a blessing and spread her cloak over a rosemary shrub. Instantly, the pale flowers were turned to a heavenly blue color.

Once the family was safely beyond Herod's reach, Joseph and Mary stopped to rest beside a stream. While baby Jesus slept, Mary rinsed her cloak and Jesus' clothing in the stream. She then laid the laundry on two shrubs to dry. Both shrubs, lavender and rosemary, were so honored to serve the family that they both stood tall and gave off a fragrance that penetrated and remained in the fabrics the family wore. Again, Mary blessed them, and to this day, the plants have a sweet fragrance.

Even today, rosemary is used indoors to freshen the air and to add a holiday scent to rooms. Some families add it to their Advent wreaths, as it is still thought to bring good luck throughout the year.

For all you herb gardeners, take a walk this Christmas Eve through your herb garden. Listen closely, and maybe you'll hear the plants whispering a Christmas blessing to you and your loved ones.

Until next time, let's try to garden with nature, not against it, and maybe all our weeds will become wildflowers.

Laurie Garretson is a Victoria gardener and nursery owner. Send your gardening questions to laurie@vicad.com or in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77902.

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