On a grey fall day eight years ago my friend Trish and I planted lily of the valley pips by her front door. I had brought them to her from my dampish coastal garden, where they flourished. The planting was an expression of hope for both of us.
Trish had recently received a cancer diagnosis, and she wanted to be able to see one of her favourite flowers every time she opened her door the following spring.
Lily of the valley evokes old-fashioned romance for me. I really love her pristine white bells with daintily scalloped edges like little petticoats, and a fragrance unlike any other flower—both green and sweet, with almost a sparkle to it. The scent is a classic, and I could identify it blindfolded. It was a favourite of my Nana, and my mother loves it as well. It is a good cut flower which will fill any room in which it is placed with sweet fragrance.
TIP: If you want to smell of these sweet blooms, look for fragrance products with the words “Muguet de Bois” on the label, often carried in larger drug stores.
The Lily of the Valley Story
Lily of the valley, or Convallaria majalis, is an ancient perennial plant, in cultivation since at least 1000 BC. It’s native across Europe, Asia and Northern America (Convallaria montana), although I live in Canada and have never seen it growing wild. Thankfully it is still readily available in nurseries today. Ancient folk names included May bells, lady’s tears, and Mary’s tears.
It was a very popular garden plant in the 16th and 17th centuries, where various forms were common, including a double variety (Convallaria majalis ‘Prolificans’ or ‘Flore Pleno’). There was also a pink type which may still be available today, and a red type known before 1599 as ‘Rubra’ (which I can’t picture at all but would love to see). “Variegata” has cream-striped foliage, and needs more light than the others to keep that pretty striping.
Garden writers of past centuries were not fond of the double version, calling it “lumpy,” “not worth cultivating” and “not very pretty”. In the 1930s ascerbic garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder said of the pink variety, “I do not think it pretty.” Personally, I am perfectly content with the well-known single white-flowered variety, whose simple feminine charm belies its hardiness.
NOTE: All parts of the plant are poisonous. Be sure to keep dogs, cats and kids away from it.
How to Grow Lily of the Valley
Lily of the valley is simple to grow, even getting a little out of control if it finds its happy place. It grows best up to Zone 8, and is usually planted in the fall for flowers the following April/May. Site the roots in a partly shady spot in moist, rich soil. Propagate by division after the foliage dies. I have seen it growing well in almost total shade and under trees, where it is difficult to get almost anything else to grow. The Spruce can give you more details on this lovely plant.
In my coastal garden she inserted herself up through the hosta shoots, getting friendly with the pointed pink noses of Solomon’s seal in early spring. Unfortunately I have not been able to get this old friend to thrive at all in my new dry garden, and must content myself with stealing a sniff (and a stem) when I visit a friend’s shady garden.
Below is an illustration from “The Complete Book of Garden Magic” a 1935 gardening encyclopedia that always rested on my grandparents’ coffee table. I used to love to pore over it as a child, enjoying the colour plates of gardens and ponds. Victorians loved to force the sweet blooms to enjoy indoors in the winter, and this image shows how to do it.
Here is a slightly simpler set of instructions from one of my favourite books The Heirloom Gardener by Jo Ann Gardner. She says you can force pips indoors in any season by storing them in the refrigerator (if you have an extra fridge that would be good) then trimming the roots about halfway and settling 10-12 pips in a 6″ bowl with their tips just showing above the rim. Press a mixture of sand and peat moss around them, fill the container with lukewarm water, and set it near good light. She says you should have flowers in three to four weeks.
One of the things I love best about old garden flowers is how we can connect with them emotionally through memory. The scent of lily of the valley will always evoke my friend Trish for me now; sadly, she passed away two years after her diagnosis. She loved books (she was a founding member of our 25-year old Novel Thinkers book club), laughter, and lily of the valley. I am so grateful to have had her in my life, and I will think of her every spring when I see this lovely plant unfurling its green leaves and raising its nodding white bells.
Heirloom Lily of the Valley Varieties to Grow
Single Lily of the valley is easy to find in most nurseries, where it can also often be found as root stock in peat moss, packaged in plastic bags. Canada’s Breck’s Bulbs carries the double version. In the US Jackson & Perkins carries the “Prolificans” variety.
Have you seen or grown the double, pink, red or variegated foliage varieties of lily of the valley? Tell me what you think – is the double version simply lumpy as Mrs. Wilder opined? Would you want to grow pink or red lily of the valley? Would you prefer solid green leaves or are the striped variegated leaves appealing? I want to know!