Lily-of-the-valley is a spring garden flower that I think of as "traditional", growing in long-established gardens of the eastern U.S.
In Girl Scouts I sang
"White coral bells, upon a slender stalk
Lilies of the valley deck my garden walk.
Oh don't you wish, that you might hear them ring?
That will happen only when the fairies sing."
Added to their sweet fragrance, it made them plants I loved to encounter.
Lilies-of-the-valley are from Europe and have been grown in gardens for centuries. Mostly people called them lily-of-the-valley, but Mary's tears, Our Lady's tears, Jacob's ladder, ladder-to-heaven and May lily were also used. The Anglo-Saxons in England called them glovewort and made a salve for sore hands.
The scientific name says about the same thing as the common name: Convallaria pretty much means"valley plant" since Convallis is Latin for valley or ravine. Our garden lily-of-the-valley is Convallaria majalis, The species epithet majalis means "of May," flowering in May. Despite being called lilies, they are now in the asparagus family, Asparagaceae.
(Family Name Explanation: You will see them described as in the lily family, Lilaceae, in the lily-of-the-valley family Convallariaceae, in the butcher's broom family Ruscaceae as well as in the aspargus family Asparagaceae. Lily-of-the-valley, Convallaria, is a group of three species from Eurasia. They resemble lilies, so originally they went into the huge family Liliaceae. But that was a group of 250 genera and 4,000 species, very much a catch-all. So botanists tried defining smaller more coherent families. The one with lily-of-the-valley had 11 genera and 65 species, very small, and was named for lily-of-the-valley Convallariaceae. But it wasn't very different from other little families that had been in the lily family. So another revision threw several little families into a family named for Rusca, butcher's broom, a Nolina if you know the agave-like plants of the US Southwest. (Nolina pictures link.) The Ruscaceae had 26 genera and 505 species. But once again it was revised when DNA and other evidence put the plants in the Ruscaceae as a group within the asparagus family, not an independent lineage. (Imagine them as having characteristics typical of the asparagus family and a few characteristics that let you identify them as especially closely related to Nolina.) So, the latest edition of this story, since 2009, has lily-of-the-valley still grouped with Nolina and its relatives but now as a subfamily, called Nolinideae, within the aspargus family Asparagaceae. This will eventually stablize, but DNA technology is only about 30 years old and there are 400,000 plants' relationships to work out.)
In a famous legend, in St. Leonard's Forest in England, 40 miles from London, near Horsham in Sussex, the hermit St. Leonard fought a dragon, for days, and wherever the saint's blood fell, lilies-of-the-valley appeared.
St. Leonard was a Frank from the court of King Clovis who reportedly came to England in the early 6th century, to live in retirement a life of prayer as forest hermit in the forest now named after him. A dragon--called Temptation in some versions--disturbed St. Leonard and they fought a protracted battle through the forest. Much blood was spilled. Nettles grew where the dragon's blood fell, lily-of-the-valley where St. Leonard's blood landed. Ultimately, St. Leonard prevailed, slaying perhaps the last dragon in England.
God asked St. Leonard what reward he would like for destroying the dragon and he asked that snakes be banished and nightengales, whose calls had disturbed his prayers, be silent. A traditional verse for St. Leonard's Forest goes
"Here the Adders never sting,
Nor the Nightingales sing."
There is very little evidence for St. Leonard of Clovis's court ever visiting England, but lilies-of-the-valley still grow abundantly in St. Leonard's Forest.
|a meadow with lily-of-the-valley, near Stockholm, Sweden|
The positive associations probably aided it as a medicine. Gerard (1597) says that a spoonful of the liquid made the flowers distilled with wine will restore speech to those with a dumb palsy or apoplexy. This same liquid comforts the heart, he wrote. Furthermore, if the flowers are put in a glass and set, sealed, in an anthill for a month, they will produce a liquid which, rubbed on, eases gout. Culpeper (1632) wrote the plant strengthens the brain and that the distilled water will aid the eyes. Wine made with lily-of-the-valley, rubbed on the forehead and back of the neck, reportedly gave a person good common sense. Modern herbal medicine uses it in a variety of contexts, but like most effective medicines, it is dangerous if incorrectly used.
Lily-of-the-valley is in fact, quite toxic, containing some 40 different cardiac glycosides. These act on heart muscle. Lily-of-the-valley has much the same effect as foxglove, Digitalis, the source of the heart medicine digitalis. The poison is found in all parts of lily of the valley. Serious poisoning of humans or dogs is rare, but it should not be ingested.
They make excellent cut flowers, being pretty with a lovely scent.
The scent of lily-of-the-valley flowers is a famous, sweet fragrance. The scent can be captured by soaking the flowers in olive oil or oil of sweet almonds, the more flowers the stronger the scent. While lily-of-the-valley is an important perfume name, as far as I can tell commercial lily-of-the-valley perfume is not made with real lily-of-the-valley flowers but rather synthesized. I found no perfume site that listed any ingredients, I can find no production figures for commercially traded lily-of-the-valley flowers or helpful websites explaining how to get into the business of raising lilies-of-the-valley for the perfume trade. But you can read that Jacques Guerlain in France invented the synthetic fragrance (link ).
The plants are long-lived and once established can be low-maintenance ground covers. Lily-of-the-valley plants clone, spreading aggressively under conditions they like, usually moist spots with at least some shade. I put a bit of root in the badly disturbed area under the bird feeder where nothing had lived. The plant is slowly spreading despite birds and squirrels digging up the area looking for seeds. Whether I'll be as fond of it when it finds its way to adjacent flower beds remains to be seen.
The fruits are pretty red balls. (see photos) In many places in the U.S., fruits are rare. The plants are self-incompatible, requiring two genetically different individuals to cross in order to produce seeds. When all the plants in a patch are a clone of the same genetic individual, no matter how many plants you have, you will not get fruits. Studies in Europe show that that incompatibility has slowed the spread of lily-of-the-valley into replanted forests: fruits disperse farther faster than clonal spread. For the U.S., where lily-of-the-valley has naturalized over much of the East and in parts of the Far West, the slower spread in the absence of seeds might be a good thing.
Sweet-smelling, hardy, toxic and aggressive, consider carefully before planting lily-of-the-valley. I like it.
Note: hyphens in lily-of-the-valley appear to be optional, but they do make it clearer that it is a single plant name. And I have always loved words that add an s for the plural into the middle (for example passer-by and aide-de-camp).
Beaulieu, D. Lily of the valley flowers. Fragrant but invasive poisonous landscaping flowers. The Spruce.com link
Culpeper, N. 1632 Lily of the valley. Culpeper's Complete Herbal. online
Gerard, J. 1597 Ch. 60. Of Lilly in the valley or May Lilly. The herbal or general history of plants. link
Grieve, M. 1932. Lily-of-the-valley. A modern herbal. Dover, NY.
Hepper, F. N. Plants in the Bible. Biblicalgardens.com link
Ikebanova, O. Lily of the valley at Fragrantica link
Hilty, J. 2017. Lily of the valley IllinoisWildflowers.info link
iNaturalist. Lily of the valley link (nice map)
Martin, L. C. 1987. Garden flower folklore. The Globe Pequot Press, Chester, CT.
Mike. 2015. What are the five flowers named in the Bible? Thisisyourbible.com link
Missouri Plant Finder. Convallaria majalis link
Pollington, S. 2000. Leechcraft. Early English charms, plant lore and healing. Anglo-Saxon Books, Trowbridge, England.
Robertson, J. 29017. Lily of the valley. The Poison Garden link
Rose, J. 1972. Herbs and things. Jeanne Rose's herbal. Grosset and Dunlap, New York.
Soniak, M. How poisonous is lily of the valley. Mental Floss.com link
Sussex archaeology and folklore. Sussex dragons. link
Vickery, R. 1995. Oxford dictionary of plant-lore. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Wikipedia: St. Leonard
Comments and corrections welcome.
Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
Join me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AWanderingBotanist