Lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis, is a lovely spring flower that grows wild in moist, shady woodlands. It is native to Europe, but can be found throughout North America and northern Asia. A favorite in shady gardens, lily of the valley spreads easily, filling spring garden beds with flowers and the air with a lovely fragrance.
Lily of the valley are low-growing plants reaching 8 to 9 inches in height. They bloom for about three weeks anytime from late March to early June, depending on latitude and elevation. The flowers are usually creamy white though a pink variety is available.
The flowers are a favorite of bees and other pollinating insects, attracting these beneficial pollinators to your early garden. The flowers sometimes form berries, about 1/4 inch in diameter, that turn red in the fall and provide food for ground-feeding birds and chipmunks.
Planting and Growing
Plant lily of the valley in either spring or fall since they may need 1 to 2 years before they are established enough to bloom. Keep the area evenly watered and the plants will stay green all year long. If the soil is allowed to dry out, the leaves will usually die back for the season and young plants may be stressed. The plants are not particularly fast spreaders, but they are consistent and persistent even without a gardener's care. For quick coverage as a ground cover, use a close spacing of 12 inches or less between new plants.
The berries contain seeds, which can produce new plants. Harvest the seeds in the fall when the berries are red and plant immediately about 1/4-inch deep.
Lily of the valley does not establish in hot dry climates or tropical climates, since it requires a 3 month period of winter chill.
Lily of the valley is usually propagated by "pips" or rhizome divisions. Make divisions after the plants bloom in the spring or in the fall. To divide, gently dig or "lift" established plants and use a sharp knife to cut sections of rhizome. Each section should include some fibrous roots and an eye, which is where the next year's leaf growth will be. In the spring, cut the leaf clumps along the rhizomes and replant them individually. Plant in the fall early enough to allow 3 to 4 weeks for the pips to root before the first heavy frost. Mulch for winter protection, especially new plants.
The roots, flowers and leaves of lily of the valley contain cardiac glycosides, which have been used in pharmaceuticals. The glycosides are easily extracted from the flowers and have been used in place of foxglove in medicine. Wildlife will not eat the leaves and flowers of this plant due to the toxic effects of the glycosides.
Lily of the valley is also used to make perfume. It is used in fragrance blends as well as for pure lily of the valley colognes. It is a popular aroma for scented candles, potpourri products and soaps.
Lily of the valley flowers are associated with purity and are favorite wedding flowers. The sweet fragrance coupled with the pure white bell-shaped flowers provide a romantic touch in any bouquet or arrangement.
Lily of the valley is the birth flower for the month of May, signifying the arrival of spring and the purity of new life.
According to one Christian legend, Mary's tears at the cross turned into lily of the valley flowers, hence the folk name "Our Lady's Tears". Stands of lily of the valley are sometimes found in old cemeteries where they were planted many decades ago and have naturalized.