Cyclamen, a flower connected to the Virgin Mary

Both in Muslim lore and in Christian legends, the Virgin Mary is an important figure. The cyclamen flower is associated to Mary, the mother of Jesus, for a variety of surprising reasons!

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Cyclamen, a flower famed in Arabic countries

Native to the Middle East and Eastern Europe, the Cyclamen has long been part of daily life in tribes and nations of the area.

It has many names in each of the dialects and languages that are heard there. Some of the more surprising names are in Arabic and Hebrew:

  • Soap of the Shepherds” – the tuber contains saponin, a compound that traps oily stains off clothes. Shepherds would rub it on dirty clothes until it foamed up, and then rinsed filth away.
  • King Solomon’s Crown” – the flower looks like it’s ready to be set on a wise king’s head!
  • Light Snow” – in the wild, cyclamen would grow in shaded nooks and crannies among rock, and this is exactly where the first signs of icy frost would show up on cold days.
  • Whale Sleep” – this shows a surprising use of the slightly toxic cyclamen tuber. Bait made from ground cyclamen roots was fed to fish. The toxins made the fish dizzy and easy to catch!

Turkish sultans in the 16th century would burn incense prepared in part from cyclamen flowers, together with sandalwood and aloe. This preparation needed days to brew and was exclusively meant for burning within the marvelous palace of Top Kapi.

Cyclamen, Mary’s Incense

Another more intriguing name is “Incense of the Virgin Mary“. This refers to the virgin from whom Jesus was born.

Several different connections exist between the flower and this maiden of old.

  • The cyclamen flower seems to bow its head in reverence, much like the young veil-bearing Mary is said to have done when she accepted her mission of motherhood.
  • The colors of the flowers are often of immaculate white petals with red lining the bottom. Such an image is likened to Mary’s pure heart bleeding of sorrow as her son Jesus is tortured and dies. In this respect, Cyclamen is very much like another flower, called Bleeding heart.

As a result of this association, incense prepared from cyclamen was used in churches that were dedicated to Mother Mary. Cyclamen bouquets and floral arrangements often decorate chapels and are set at the foot of Marian statues.

Sadly, most cyclamen types sold in stores aren’t very fragrant. Those that smell best are often found in the wild, and it’s difficult to come across them in regular horticulture stores!

A flower that helps cope with sorrow

A humble, head-bowing cyclamen flower standing upright after a withering frost.Since it flowers in fall, when All Saint’s day is celebrated in the Western world, Cyclamen is often one of the flowers brought to honor the dead. Pots filled with blooming cyclamen decorate tombs and cemeteries, together with chrysanthemum.

Likewise, during funerals, the pink, white and violet hues often adorn altars and burials, where they bring peace to mourning relatives and friends.

However, outside of these dramatic events, Cyclamen truly brings joy and color to otherwise drab and gray winter days. Like hellebore, cyclamen will bloom even when the weather is freezing!

Learn more about Cyclamen

More plants entwined in historical lore


Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Bleeding cyclamen by Dorothy Tse under © CC BY 2.0
Lonely cyclamen by Rosalyn & Gaspard Lorthiois, own work