Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone was born in approximately 1181 in Assisi, Italy. He was apparently a wealthy young man bent on enjoying life. But in 1204, he reported a vision directing him to return to Assisi and become a monk. He became known as Francis of Assisi, and founded an order of friars that quicsaint francis statue very plainkly grew to thousands of men and which is still powerful and active today, 800 years later, as the Franciscans. He died in 1226 and was made a saint in 1228. But why is he relevant to gardeners?

You no doubt have seen but have maybe not noticed the statues of Saint Francis that abound in tiny backyard gardens as well as in huge public ones. Often he has his arms stretched out to hold bird seed, or is depicted with birds alighting on his arms.There is a story about him preaching to "Sister Sparrow" and another about him making peace with "Brother Wolf."

As a gardener, I find Saint Francis' writings to be very relevant. In the "Canticle of the Sun" from 1224 he speaks of "Brother Sun" and "Sister Moon," "Sister Water" and "Brothers Wind and Air." To me that is nearly incomprehensible, that concepts which many today struggle with, came so naturally to this man 800 years ago! Without benefit of sophisticated biology, geology, seismology, weather satellites or carbon dating, he understood that the sun, moon, water, earth, fire and air are all interrelated and have to do with the health of the creatures and plants on "Mother Earth." Although these concepts sound New Age and contemporary, I assure you they were not so in the Middle Ages. Saint Francis had an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life, a world view which was not to return for hundreds of years among Europeans. It is no wonder that he has a place in so many gardens.

Statues of Saint Francis vary widely, from the standard religious type featured in the photograph above to ones that can only be considered modern art. Sometimes a Saint Francis will be in the family for generations, as with this fairly typical rendition. This one has been in DG subscriber sunkissed's family for four generations.

standard Saint Francis in a shady garden

The unusual bigger-than-lifesize Saint Francis carving below was spotted by subscriber Rocco on a backyard garden tour in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The statue was "carved from a very large tree that had died. The work was done by our local chainsaw artist," Rocco told me. (I don't think we have a local chainsaw artist!) He cleverly snapped a shot to share with his DG friends, and now with all of us.

And this fabulously abstract Saint Francis below still features the birds, the wolf, and other animals and the pious face. It is made of cast aluminum and is an expensive work of modern garden art, shared with us by DG subscriber missingrosie.

abstract sculpture of Saint Francis

As well as incredible statues of all kinds, there is a daylily, a tropical hibiscus and a tall bearded iris honoring this humble man. So if your garden is missing a little something, if you would like to express your appreciation for this forward-thinking medieval monk, or if you just like garden art, consider adding Saint Francis to your garden, the patron saint of gardeners and birds*.

*Gwen Bruno has written another article proposing that St. Fiacre is the actual patron Saint of gardeners--read it and decide for yourself!