Agriculture - Symbolism of the Easter Lily

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Plants have long been associated with symbolism.  When the masses needed to be influenced, it was more effective using plants and flowers to explain the mysteries of the world because most people were illiterate.  You may not have been able to read the words, but you certainly could have related to the lessons taught by using flowers as symbols.  Christians were very good at this when explaining Christ’s life.

Undoubtedly, the lily is the favorite flower of the Easter season.  The lily is the flower of the Virgin Mary symbolizing purity. If the lily is among thorns, it suggests the Immaculate Conception. If the baby Jesus is offering a bouquet of lilies to a saint, it reminds the viewer of the virtues of chastity. I was an Art History major at Kalamazoo College many years ago and learned much about Christian symbolism through studying art.

It is not difficult to imagine that many early spring blooming plants are associated with the resurrection of Jesus, like lily of the valley.  There are many flowers that are associated with Mary, as well.  The cyclamen is sometimes referred to as a “bleeding nun” and the red center of the heart-shaped bloom was associated with the sorrow of Mary’s heart.  If you are a sweetly scented white flower, like jasmine, there was an association with the Virgin Mary.  Blue flowers were equally associated with Mary because of her blue cloak.  In this case, it represents Mary as the queen of heaven, particularly the blue iris.   The blue flowers of the herb rosemary were thought to have appeared after Mary draped her cloak over this Mediterranean plant to dry.  This, too, is how it got the name rosemary and is the symbolic herb of remembrance.

The dandelion can be seen in paintings of the Madonna and Child and is intended to remind the viewer of what is to come.  The bitterness of the dandelion represents the pending crucifixion. I like to eat the tender green leaves this time of the year in salads or cooked with scrambled eggs; it reminds me that people have known the bitter medicine that this little flower’s roots and greens offer for many years.

In the New World, Spanish missionaries worked at converting Caribbean people to Christianity and used the plants there to teach about Christ’s crucifixion.  Apparently, the passionflower inspired such a story and became known as the flower of the five wounds.  The spiraled style in the center represent the lashes he endured, the pistil represents the pillar of scourging, the radial filaments represent his crown of thorns, five sepals represent his five wounds, and it goes on.

The dogwood has a slightly newer association with Christ.  The red spots on the white petals are drops of blood.  The four bracts resemble the cross and the center resembles the crown of thorns.  Legend has it, as well, that the cross was made of dogwood wood and as a result was cursed by God and thus never grew large again.

Interestingly, too, if you enjoy cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower or collard greens, you should know that the root of the word is the Latin crux, which means cross.  The flowers of these vegetables are four-petaled and resemble a cross.  

And, finally, if you receive an Easter lily, known as lilium longifolium, you will be delighted to know that once the blooms fade you can plant it out in your garden.   Choose a spot with well-drained soil, in full sun and plant at the same depth as it was planted in the pot, maybe slightly deeper.  Next year the lily will bloom in summer, not in the spring, as it should here in Kentuckiana.