“By morning, those blooms are wilted and dead,” she said. “After that … it’s just a plain ol’ plant with nothing much to see.”
The plant in question is a Night Blooming Cereus, a tropical cactus that is more commonly known as “Christ in a Manger,” because its uniquely shaped blooms appear to some like the Christ child in a manger surrounded by angels, with the star of Bethlehem hanging above.
“It’s a truly beautiful bloom — and the next morning, it’s gone,” Jennings said.
Several years ago, Jennings was given a cutting of the plant by Ruth Rutherford, the wife of her then-pastor, Charles Rutherford, at Leatherwood Baptist Church. Since then, she’s had to repot it several times, but come August, she starts keeping her eye out for those inspiring, yet short-lived, blooms.
“It really makes you think,” she said, “about all the beauty that’s out there if we just take the time to see it.”
The Christ in a Manger is but one of countless examples of spiritually themed plants, trees and flowers, all of which are designed to serve as reminders of the divine in everyday life.
The beauty and serenity of flowers have been long offered as proof of the existence of God and his role in creation. But flowers have served practical purposes, as well. In early America, churchgoers used to sniff the herb fennel to stay awake during long sermons.
“Flowers, plants and trees can and do speak to anyone,” said Sherry Blanton, a Calhoun County Master Gardener and former president of Temple Beth El in Anniston. “Some characteristic — whether it be the color, form or fragrance — of a beautiful growing thing reaches our souls.”
Within the Christian faith, flowers and plants often symbolize biblical stories, such as the crucifixion of Christ in the passion flower. They can also serve as testament to a particular iconic figure, such as the marigold, which is said to have been made into garlands by early Christians and laid at the feet of statues of the Virgin Mary.
The lily of the valley is said to symbolize happiness, purity of heart and sweetness. According to legend, the lily of the valley sprang from Eve’s tears after she was kicked out of the Garden of Eden. It’s also said that it protects gardens from evil spirits. Another legend holds that Mary’s tomb was filled with lilies after her ascension into heaven.
In Judaism, during Sukkot — an eight-day harvest holiday that starts four days after Yom Kippur — there is the waving of the lulav and the etrog, which together represent the Four Species. The etrog is a kind of citron (related to a lemon), while the lulav is made of three myrtle twigs, two willow twigs and a palm frond. They are waved in all directions, to represent God’s dominion over creation.
“Regardless of what religion or belief system we have, there can be a story in a plant, flower or tree that we can share,” Blanton said. “We all know that when flowers are present, an event becomes more special.”
Roman Catholic priests in the late 1500s supposedly named this bloom for the Passion (suffering and death) of Jesus Christ. They believed that parts of the plant symbolized aspects of Christ’s crucifixion, from his lashing to the crown of thorns placed upon his head. For instance:
• The flower’s five petals and five petal-like sepals represent the 10 apostles who remained faithful to Jesus throughout the Passion.
• The circle of 72 hair-like radial filaments above the petals suggests the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the day of his death.
• The lower five anthers symbolize the five wounds.
• The red stains represent drops of his blood.
• The flower’s fragrance represents the spices prepared by the holy women.
According to “Christmas: A Candid History” by Bruce David Forbes, after the Spanish introduced Christianity and Christmas into what we now call Mexico, a folktale arose about a little girl who wanted to bring a gift to the Christ child but, in tears, realized that she had nothing beautiful enough to offer. Nevertheless, she brought a handful of ordinary weeds to the cradle of the baby Jesus and, in a miracle, he turned them into brilliant red flowers.
At the time of Christ’s crucifixion, legend has it, the dogwood was the size and height of a mighty oak tree. Because it was so strong and firm, it was chosen as the wood to make the cross upon which Christ died. But being used for such a horrific purpose brought great sorrow to the tree. Sensing this, Jesus made a promise that it would never again be used in such a way. Ever since, dogwoods have grown to be slender and twisted. Their pink and white blossoms appear in the form of a cross, with two long and two short petals.
In Greek mythology, the Lenten rose was used to rescue the daughters of the King of Argos from madness induced by Dionysus that caused them to run naked and screaming through the city streets.
It’s also claimed that the Christmas rose (a relative of the Lenten rose) sprouted out of the snow where a young girl’s tears fell after she came to Bethlehem to visit the Christ child and had no worthy gift.
What’s in a name?
A list of favorite flowers with spiritual names from Hayes Jackson, urban renewal extension agent for the Alabama Extension Service:
• Star of Bethlehem
• Eucharist lily
• Devil’s trumpet
• Angel’s trumpet
• Easter lily
• Job’s tears
• Bishop’s cap
• Jerusalem thorn
• Prayer plant
• Voodoo lily
• Buddha’s belly bamboo
• There is a series of hostas that have religious names, like “Count Your Blessings”
Flowers in other faiths
Buddhism: The lotus flower represents many things, including fortune, purification, knowledge and faithfulness — largely because it grows in muddy water and must rise above the muck and mire to achieve enlightenment.
Hinduism: In Hinduism’s sacred text, man aspires to be like the lotus — to work without attachment, to dedicate his actions to God, to be untouched by sin — like the beautiful flower standing high above the mud and water. The very name of the Hindu worship ritual, “puja,” can be translated as “the flower act.” According to Hinduism, within each human there is the spirit of the sacred lotus.
Taoism: In Taoism and other Chinese religions, white flowers are the symbol of death and used only in funerals. Red flowers — the symbol of love, joy and prosperity — are commonly used in Chinese weddings. Peonies are a symbol of spring and renewed life. Orchids represent love and fertility.