I was born in the merry month of May, the month when Lily of the Valley blooms and permeates the air with its heady fragrance. Is it any wonder that I adore that flower?
Back in Pleasantville in New York State, where I grew up, we had a lush bed of these lilies, growing happily in the shade of an elm tree in the front garden of our family home. Every May I would gather little bouquets for my Grannie whose birthday was only two days before mine. Not surprisingly, her favourite perfume was called ‘Muguet des Bois’ – Lily of the Valley.
One fateful day, when my sister Jacki was learning to drive, she accidentally drove the car right over the bed. Grannie and I were in despair. How could she have been so reckless? Poor Jacki was mortified. And the lilies? Those tough little beauties came back in even greater profusion the following spring. I learned something very important about them – that despite their delicate appearance, once they’re established in a garden, they’re as tough as old boots.
Although I’ve lived in England for many years now, it wasn’t until I retired and moved to my present house that I had the time to devote to serious gardening. Lily of the Valley was certainly on my shopping list but St. Dorothy, the patron saint of gardeners, must have been smiling down on me. Why? Because when early spring came, I noticed, to my great delight, about 20 little Lily of the Valley runaways had cunningly crept under the boundary fence from next door’s garden. I’ve since got to know my neighbour well and she’s very kindly let me transplant clumps into my flower bed. They have rooted well and grow in such abundance that I don’t feel guilty if I cut a bunch to enjoy indoors.
The scientific name for Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalis, is derived from the Latin convallis, meaning deep valley, and maius, meaning May. It is native to the northern hemisphere and its British history it can be traced as far back as the 16th century – in Gerard’s Herbal — as growing in ‘great abundance’ on Hampstead Heath. This plant forms extensive colonies by spreading underground stems or rhizomes just beneath the surface of the soil. Tight green scrolls of leaves shoot up from the soil, and gently unfurl, soon revealing bell-shaped white flowers hanging on arching racemes above the dark green leaves. The stems grow to 15-30cm tall, with one or two lance-shaped leaves 10-25cm long. The tiny flowers which cover the stems are usually white, occasionally pink. In the autumn, reddish berries, which are poisonous, can appear. The fragrance is legendary.
Lily of the Valley will grow in most soils but is happiest in shade or partial shade. They can be planted out – ready-potted ones work very well – in the spring. Propagating by division, as I did from the plants in my neighbour’s bed, is almost fool-proof. The method is to dig up clumps with a trowel or fork in autumn. Then tease away a few roots which have pips (small swellings on the roots from which the new plants will grow) and plant them in their new location, watering them in well. A helpful feed of well-rotted compost can give them a boost but after that they require little or no feeding. In fact, nitrogen-rich fertilisers will only produce more leaves at the expense of the flowers.
There are a several varieties of Lily of the Valley sold in the U.K. These include Rosea which is similar to the original but has pale pink flowers and less scent. Prolificans has slightly fewer flowers versus Flore Pleno which has double-flowers. Call me a Luddite, but for me it’s the original Convallaria majalis every time.
There’s more to this little flower than its beauty. Besides being considered a sign of spring, it has been the subject of folklore for centuries. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Our Lady’s Tears’ or ‘Mary’s Tears’ because according to Christian legend, Lily of the Valley sprang from the weeping of the Virgin Mary during Jesus’s crucifixion. In religious paintings, it can be a symbol of humility or a sign of Christ’s second coming. Another story is that Lily of the Valley came from Eve’s tears after she and Adam were driven from Eden. Closer to home, there is an old Sussex tale that describes St. Leonard’s brave battle with a fierce dragon. Wherever the warrior’s blood fell, a Lily of the Valley grew, to commemorate this noble battle. Not surprisingly, St Leonard’s Forest in May time is thickly carpeted with these plants. There is also a charming story that tells of the affection of a Lily of the Valley for a nightingale; the bird would fly away, only returning to the woods when the flower bloomed in May.
Lily of the Valley has had other names in its long history. It has been called the May Lily or May Bells. One that I particularly like is ‘Ladder-to-Heaven’. How glorious for a plant to have such lyrical names – when you remember that it belongs to the botanical family Asparagaceae, making it a relative of the asparagus!
The Lily of the Valley is also an important symbol to several countries. The Norwegian municipality of Lunner has a Lily of the Valley on its coat of arms. It was also the floral emblem of Yugoslavia, and became the national flower of Finland in 1982. In the U.S., the Lily of the Valley is the official flower of several college fraternities and sororities.
But it is the French that truly celebrate its existence. The first of May is their Fete du Muguet – Lily of the Valley Day. This is when you are meant to offer a sprig to a loved one. Bunches of Lily of the Valley fill the florists’ shops and supermarkets in the week leading up the Fete, and are sold as porte-bonheur, good-luck charms. The origin of this tradition dates back to King Charles IX. The story goes that on the first of May in 1561, King Charles was presented with a bouquet of Lily of the Valley. The flowers enchanted him so much that he presented them to the ladies of his court every year on that date.
In the ‘The Language of Flowers’, Lily of the Valley has several meanings including sweetness, humility, trustworthiness and the return of happiness. With these qualities in mind, one can understand why this flower is such a popular choice for weddings. The Duchess of Cambridge, nee Kate Middleton, selected it as the major flower in her all-white bridal bouquet – along with myrtle from Queen Victoria’s garden on the Isle of Wight, sweet William (now, who could that refer to?) and hyacinths. And Megan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex, also included Lily of the Valley in her bouquet.
They were both lucky that this flower was available when they got married. Sadly, when I married in darkest January, there was no Lily of the Valley in bloom, even in ‘hot houses’. I had to be satisfied with freesias and gypsophila. I am now a divorcee but if I ever get married again, you can bet your bottom dollar (as we say in the U.S.A.) that my bouquet will be overflowing with Lily of the Valley.