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Symbolism of the Lily of the Valley

By Gwen Bruno ; Updated September 21, 2017

Lily of the valley is a low-growing perennial plant which grows from a rhizome. It prefers shady spots and can spread to form large colonies, making a good groundcover under trees. The plant sends up flower stems in May, upon which dangle small, white, bell-like blossoms famous for their sweet scent.

Flower of May

Lily of the valley is the birth flower for the month of May. The second part of its scientific name, Convallaria magalis, means “that which belongs to May.” By tradition, the French celebrate the first day of May by buying a bouquet or pot of the flowers from florists and street corner vendors. The flowers are seen as a good-luck charm, called a "porte-bonheur,” meaning literally “bringer of happiness,” according to FrenchGardening.com. The French language also lent the name “Muguet des Bois” to a much-loved Coty fragrance which smells like lily of the valley.

Wedding Flower

Lily of the valley is often chosen as a wedding flower, both for its elegance and the delicacy of its fragrance. In the language of flowers, lily of the valley represents a “return to happiness,” perhaps because this early bloomer is a harbinger of spring. According to legend, the lily of the valley draws out the nightingale, leading him to to choose his mate.

Christian Symbolism

Like many other white flowers, lily of the valley symbolizes purity, humility, chastity and sweetness. In Christian symbolism, lily of the valley represents the Advent or coming of Christ, because the flowers appear so early in the spring. One name for lily of the valley is “our lady’s tears.” Supposedly, the lily of valley came into being from the tears shed by Eve as she was cast from the Garden of Eden.

Other Names

Lily of the valley is sometimes called “ladder to heaven” because of the way the flowers dangle from their stems, looking like tiny steps. In Ireland, the plants are sometimes referred to as “fairy ladders,” according to BirthFlowersGuide.com. Other names for lily of the valley are May lilies and May bells.

Use as Ornament

Lily of the valley can be found on paterae, circular or oval ornaments which were either carved or inlaid on furniture. According to Deanne Levison, author of “The Symbolism of Floral Inlay” in Magazine Antiques, early American furniture makers decorated their work with unique floral designs, reflecting the optimism and spirit of the new country. Most often these floral inlays depicted hardy, sweet-scented spring-blooming flowers. Paterae of lily of the valley have been found on tables and sideboards made in several of the colonies. To the makers and users of this furniture, the lily of the valley most likely represented the joy of spring.

 

About the Author

 

Gwen Bruno has been a full-time freelance writer since 2009, with her gardening-related articles appearing on DavesGarden. She is a former teacher and librarian, and she holds a bachelor's degree in education from Augustana College and master's degrees in education and library science from North Park University and the University of Wisconsin.