Jill, Duchess of Hamilton on the lost art of Christian gardening
Fiowers have an integral role in decorating and adorning Christian churches, yet there s now little connection between adjacent church gardens and flowers in church vases. Few move from garden to nave. This is seen with Easter bouquets: a large number are forced in hothouses so they will be in bloom for Easter Sunday.
Coinciding with Easter this year is publicity about the air miles and carbon footprints of flowers, some of which travel over 6,000 miles. Apart from alarm over "designer" flowers, this may alert clergy and churchgoers to other environmental issues.
The lack of ecclesiastical concern about the outdoors is unexpected as most of Jesus's ministry took place outside. His last free night on earth was spent in the Garden of Gethsemane. His tomb and the site of his Resurrection were in a garden. According to John's Gospel, when Mary Magdalene first saw Jesus after the Resurrection she mistook him for a gardener.
A contributing reason for indifference to the natural surroundings of Jesus is that attention was diverted when a large number of the locations linked to his life were put under brick, stone and tile. After their conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena, began to encapsulate the caves and green spaces connected to special events in the life of Jesus. The massive Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was erected over the cave where Jesus is said to have been born; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built over Jesus's tomb and the site of his crucifixion on Golgotha, and so on. So instead of looking at the earth on which they were walking, pilgrims prayed with their eyes raised heavenward.
In spite of this, during the Middle Ages European monastic gardens were distinguished by strong styles. Illuminations depict the Virgin Mary in an enclosure, a hortus conclusus, symbolising her purity. "Mary Gardens" had symbolic plants including the marigold and the Madonna Lily. But no longer.
The areas around places of worship are usually a mix of trees and flowers from all over the world. Not one contemporary traditional garden design element or symbol exists in European or American Christian church gardens.
It is the same in Israel and Palestine. There is just one corner in all the extensive grounds of the hundreds of Christian churches and monasteries which has noticeable connections with the biblical flora. This sole example occupies a corner at the back of St George's Cathedral and College in Jerusalem. All other biblical gardens in Israel are maintained by Israeli organisations.
If local plants were grown in the grounds of churches, whether in the Holy Land or in Britain, it would add a sense of continuity with the past, produce seasonal fresh flowers and more importantly bring back the butterflies and the birds. Adapted to local soil and climate, local native plants need less maintenance than introduced plants, are hardy and disease resistant and hospitable to local insects and other animals. Insects are a vital food source for birds, frogs, dragonflies and other wildlife.
What a contrast local flowers are with many modern cultivars. They are grown with large amounts of fertilisers and insecticides and, because of the huge demand for largepetalled long-lasting flowers, many have had a face-lift at the expense of fertility. Some have been "doubled" by having their sex organs altered to create more petals and to increase their longevity. Others have little or no nectar. And even if there is nectar sometimes pollinating insects find it impossible to reach it. They are obstructed by double petals or improvements in the bloom.
Flowers with reduced nectar have more chance of surviving being packed in long cardboard boxes for days without water during the process of air freight, auction display, presentation in a retail outlet, and finally, purchase and arrangement.
Nectar can also cause rot, black spot or mildew in cut flowers when they are packed in cardboard boxes for transportation, can give problems in packing sheds with bees and ants, can brush off on flower petals so they stick when packed together, can sully boxed flowers with drips on other flowers and their own. Pollen, too, can make blemishes on packed cut flowers.
Sexuality and reproduction are the core of a flower's existence. After pollination a flower usually sets seed and/or turns into fruit or pods. When eating an orange or an apple people are often unaware that, like all fruit, it was once part of a flower. Yet sterility has become sought-after in "new" garden plants. This is because a flower will stay in bloom longer if its life is prolonged at an immature early stage.
In gardens, cultivars with no effective stamens and/or anthers, such as various new crosses of heather, are a disaster for wildlife. Long-flowering and decorative they certainly are, but they are usually sterile so offer nothing to the food chain.
With the 800th anniversary of the papal blessing of the Franciscan Order coming up in 2009, it seems an appropriate time to draw attention to St Francis's role as the patron saint of ecology. No better way to do this than by planting church gardens throughout the world with local native plants — and using seasonal flowers, instead of commercial flowers, inside churches.