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.