Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalis, is the old fashioned, sweetly scented but deadly flower often romanticized in song and prose. There are 3 species native to cooler areas of Europe, Asia and the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. Other names for the plant are Mary’s Tears and Our Lady’s Tears although this plant cannot be the lilies of the valley mentioned in the bible.
Lily of the Valley has one or two upright, broad oval shaped leaves that rise from the base of the plant on a sturdy stem. The leaves are dark green, thick, and parallel veins run from top to bottom. The roots have small bulb like structures that are called pips. The plant sends out runners just below the ground that produce new plantlets, all a clone of the original.
In late spring stems of tiny, nodding white bells arise from the plants base. Each bell has 6 slightly upturned scallops on the bottom edge. Bees are attracted to the flowers. The flowers are very fragrant and a stand of Lily of the Valley can perfume the air for a considerable distance.
In earlier times Lily of the Valley was grown for cut flowers and they still make long lasting, wonderfully fragrant bouquets in small vases. Lily of the Valley is popular as a wedding flower but quite expensive when out of season. (They can be produced in climate controlled greenhouses.)
If there are two different Lilies of the Valley close to each other and not just clones of one plant the flowers will produce tiny red berries. Lily of the Valley is self-infertile- clones cannot pollinate with each other and the original parent. That doesn’t stop them from completely filling an area that they like and the plant can be considered invasive in some spots.
Lily of the Valley Culture
These lovely and fragrant flowers are surprisingly sturdy and make a great groundcover in shaded or semi-shaded areas. They are hardy to zone 3 at least and like cold winters with hot summers. Lily of the Valley likes shaded or semi-shaded locations with sandy, loose, organic soil that is slightly acidic, but they will grow in a wide variety of soil types. The plant dies to the ground after frost and returns each spring from the roots.
Lily of the Valley may be purchased as potted plants or as pips, which look like root joints or tiny bulbs. Plant them as soon as they arrive if they are not potted. It can take 2 years before some plants or pips flower but some will flower the first season. Fall is considered the best time to plant Lily of the Valley. You will sometimes see seeds offered but these tend to have a low germination and high failure rate. Plants and pips are the best way to start the plant in your garden.
There are light pink and double flowered varieties of Lily of the Valley and a variety with variegated leaves. These are hard to find and don’t seem to be as long lived as the common variety. Some people have found that after a while these varieties seem to revert to plain white Lily of the Valley.
If summer is dry and hot the Lily of the Valley may die back or look ragged and limp and not be the prettiest groundcover. Therefore the occasional watering during dry spells is recommended. A light application of slow release flower fertilizer in early spring will make the flowers more abundant and larger. Lily of the Valley has few insect pests or disease problems and deer and rabbits rarely bother them.
Be aware that Lily of the Valley can spread rapidly through a flower bed and can be difficult to totally remove once they get a start. They are best used as a ground cover in shaded areas or kept in small patches restricted by mowing or pavement. They will naturalize in wooded areas.
Also be aware that all parts of the Lily of the Valley are poisonous. Care should be used if they are planted around children’s play areas or pet areas. Pets should not be allowed to drink water from vases that Lily of the Valley is displayed in. Berries should be removed if any form because they can attract children. Don’t use the flowers as decorations on food.
The plant affects the heart rate and may cause vomiting, blurred vision, dizziness and collapse. It can cause death. If any parts of the plant are eaten it is important to call poison control immediately and seek medical attention.
Other Uses of Lily of the Valley
Lily of the Valley does have herbal uses but its use should only be practiced under the care of a skilled, knowledgeable herbalist. It is used as a diuretic and a heart regulator similar to digitalis.
Perfume is made from the flowers of Lily of the valley. The flowers are steeped in light oil such as almond oil or in alcohol such as vodka. This should only be applied externally.
An unusual attribute of Lily of the Valley has recently been discovered. The sperm of mammals will swim rapidly toward a component of Lily of the Valley. Sperm can’t smell, as early research thought, rather the Lily of the Valley alters the calcium content of the fluid around sperm and imitates progesterone’s effect on sperm. It is being used in research and fertility studies.
The sweet smell of Lily of the Valley signifies spring to many people and the plant has good uses as a ground cover for shade. If care is taken with its invasive and poisonous qualities it can be an excellent landscape perennial.
Here are some additional articles you may want to read.
How to prune spring flowering shrubs
How to grow trout lilies in the garden
How to grow jewelweed in the garden
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