No ﬂower amid the garden fairer grows
Than the sweet lily of the lowly vale,
The queen of ﬂowers. — John Keats (1795-1821)
With its incomparable perfume and snow-white ﬂowers issuing forth in the bright hopeful season of spring, the lily of-the-valley has long been associated in literature with sweetness and the return of happiness.
The lily of-the-valley, known also as May lily and May bells, is native to northern Europe, the Allegheny Mountains of North America, and the British Isles. Between a pair of unfurling new-green leaves emerges a diminutive arching scape, covered in dangling pure white chubby bells. Their fabulous fragrance ﬂoats freely throughout the garden, unusual for a plant that grows close to the ground.
Beloved wherever it is grown, for its ineffable scent and sweet ﬂowers, the lily of-the-valley is used extensively for perfumes, soaps, and toilet water, nowhere more so than in Europe. The French translation is muguet des bois (of the wood), the German trans-lation is mit Maiglockchen, the Italian al mughetto, the Spanish say lirio del valle, the Finnish translation is lehmakielo, and the Swedish say liljekonvalj.
Convallaria majalis is the native species of northern Europe. The name Convallaria is from two Latin words meaning “with” and “valley,” having reference to its habit of growing on mountain slopes. C. majuscula is the species indigenous to North America. Convallaria majuscula is found growing in remote woodland locations, along the mountainsides and ridges of Virginia, West Virginia, and south to Georgia. C. majuscula is nearly identical to C. majalis, with slightly smaller though equally fragrant ﬂowers.
Lily of-the-valley is a vigorous perennial ground cover with a rhizomatic root structure that grows and spreads quickly. Thriving in nearly every light condition save full sun, lily of-the-valley never disappoints. Light, fertile, and preferably damp soil is the preferred growing medium of C. majalis. Provided with an annual mulch of compost or decaying leaves, lily of-the-valley multiplies rapidly. With its cold hardiness, ability to spread readily, and pervasively fragrant blossoms it is incomparable as a ground cover. The one drawback of lily of-the-valley is that, come late August, the foliage browns and becomes tattered. Grow with late season blooming perennials and bulbs, Japanese anemones and peacock orchids, for example, to draw your eye up and away from the messy foliage.
Set the pips, or bulblets, three inches deep and about four inches apart in a well-prepared bed. Water during dry periods and fertilize with ﬁsh fertilizer throughout the ﬁrst season after planting to encourage strong root development. After it has become well established, the plant is easily propagated. A freshly dug clump, as a whole unit, can either be transferred and replanted in a newly dug and well-prepared location, or the bulblets can be carefully divided and spread more judiciously, allowing for a small section of roots for each one or two pips. Plunge a serrated-edge knife deeply into the ground. Cut out a plug six to eight inches in diameter. Reﬁll the hole created by digging the clump with compost. Lily of-the-valley will soon recover and ﬁll out the spot. Early spring and mid-fall are the best times of year to divide C. majalis, although they are not that fussy. If the plant has to be divided in the summer, water regularly to prevent the new division from drying out while becoming established in its new home. With regular thinning and transplanting, one’s extra efforts will be rewarded with an ever-increasing treasure of scented ﬂowers and sea of green groundcover, with many gifts to pass along to friends.
Not to be forgotten is the noteworthy Convallaria majalis var. rosea. Characteristic in form to the white lily of-the-vale, rosea has delicate, pendulous bells washed in shades of rosy pink. We have found it to be somewhat less hardy than Convallaria majalis.
A cautionary note is in order regarding Convallaria. All parts of the plant are highly poisonous. In old herbal guides, lily of-the-valley was recommended as a heart stimulant, and was used medicinally in ways similar to digitalis. The eyecatching, plump vermilion berries may be dangerously attractive to young children and can cause paralysis and severe respiratory disorders if ingested.
What a find this weekend!–a sweet handblown bud vase, perfect for lily of-the-valley, found amongst a tumble of dusty old perfume bottles at an antique shop in Essex. So dear –the fragrance of lily of-the valley brings delicious childhood memories of picking handfuls with my Mom at my grandmother’s garden. Happy Mother’s Day Mom!