Lily of the valley is a blast from my past

When I was young, my grandfather had a huge patch of these tiny fragrant white flowers all around his house. I used to pick them and place them in jars to bring some aroma inside. Nobody ever cautioned me about them. My grandmother simply filled a low vase with water for me.

These flowers are lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). We now live in a paranoid society. Look up this plant and you’ll be inundated with how poisonous it is. I never had any desire to eat them, but they were pretty, and they smelled nice.

Cultivation of this plant goes back to biblical times. They have a huge worldwide range. Despite the name, these delicate flowers are not a lily at all, though some botanists still place them in that family. They are in the asparagus family.

Flowers are white, cuplike and slightly nodding. They have six points on them. Leaves are broad, about six inches long with parallel veins and remind me a little of wild leek. I guess that could be a problem for some, as wild leeks (ramps) are a common foraging plant and lily of the valley is poisonous to eat. All parts of the plant are poisonous if consumed orally.

These perennial flowers bloom in spring and thrive in cool weather. We can grow them in eastern North Carolina, but they must be in protected shady spots. They won’t tolerate hot sunny locations in our climate. They do well in places where they have some shade from deciduous trees in summer but have more sun during the blooming season. Early morning sun is great.

Plants thrive in moist soil. Once established they hold well in dry shady places too. They require little care, and while the blooming season is usually less than a month, their fragrance is worth it. Whenever I see or smell them, I can’t help but think of my youth.

Lily of the valley is easy to propagate. I think division is the easiest method. I usually dig up a clump and split it into sections. This method is most successful when they are dormant, but I’ve had good luck when plants are in active growth, too.

As stated, plants are poisonous, but that can be a good thing. Deer and rabbits won’t touch them. Lily of the valley also has few disease and insect pests.

These versatile perennials also can make great houseplants. Since they don’t require much light, they adapt well to the indoor environment. Indoors, they grow better if placed in an east-facing window.

These versatile perennials are often used in floral work. They make a great wedding flower, but blooming is seasonal. Still, they can be a great choice for spring weddings.

Toxins from this plant affect the heart. Therefore, one might assume herbalists have used it for heart maladies. This would be true. Irregular heartbeat, heart failure, stroke and fluid retention have been treated with this herb. I think I’d rather enjoy its fragrance and think about my grandparents.

I’ll attach a picture as soon as I can find a good one. I looked through my photo library and came up empty.



Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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3 Responses to Lily of the valley is a blast from my past

  1. tonytomeo says:

    It seems that those who can grow them think that they grow like weeds and can be invasive. Except for when we grew them as a minor cut flower crop back in 1986, I have NEVER been able to grow them in the garden. My mother really likes them. I have gotten some for her on several occasions; but they just do not survive in her garden. When I was a little kid, my Aunt Betsy work them in the veil for her wedding, like was still popular at the time.

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