Lily of the valley
Zone (3)4 to 8; full shade is necessary in warmer climes
6 to 12 inches
Nearly unlimited; an enthusiastic spreader
Exceptional as a groundcover under shade trees or within woodland and rock garden settings.
Two to three, medium green, 2- to 3-inch wide, lanceolate leaves embrace each slender flower stalk; foliage can grow to about 8 inches, and select cultivars may bear slight, striped variegation. Delicate, individual, white bells dance along the stalk, alternating from within the foliage to the tip of the stem. Distinctive fragrance can be subtle, but a large planting will infuse the garden with an irresistible, unforgettable, somewhat sweet spring scent.
Such a simple plant.
Convallaria majalis, known throughout the world as lily of the valley, is hardly a rarity. But its contribution to gardens tends to remain underappreciated, probably because of its simplicity. We tend to gravitate toward the flamboyant, showier varieties that flaunt their brilliant, traffic-stopping color or dramatically variegated foliage. They can’t help it, and neither can we. Amid all that cacophony, however, lily of the valley holds its own.
Small but mighty, this ancient plant can outcompete nearly all of its neighbors with vigorous rhizomes that spread a bit aggressively. So right up front, know that your selection of this reliable groundcover needs to be tempered by appropriate placement. It’s low growing, reaching only about 6 to 12 inches, so it may be tempting to place it at the front of a mixed border. Not a good idea: Left to its own devices, lily of the valley will create a thick, nearly impenetrable mass of medium green, lanceolate foliage. Lovely, but it’s capable of choking out other, less confident plants. So it’s best to give it room on its own, in the shade, to fill in challenging spaces. With average soil conditions and a bit of moisture, it’ll thrive. (Propagation is readily achieved by division, but may not be necessary.)
This exquisite little plant has other problems, so let’s address them now and be done with it. We’ve mentioned the tendency to spread; bloom time is relatively short; the foliage can look rather ragged come fall; orangish red fall berries are said to be poisonous.
Okay, not everyone’s perfect, so let’s look on the bright side: Vigorous spreading can be good in a groundcover, not so good if you can’t control it. Site selection is key, and once lily of the valley is established, it practically takes care of itself. Bloom time in mid-spring may be fleeting – about two to three weeks – but the mass of tiny, nodding white bells is quite literally breathtaking. And when a slight breeze wafts that irresistible fragrance, no other flower can compare. Raggedy looking foliage is expected in fall as the garden dies back for the winter. The berries? Not unsightly, and they can be removed if children and pets are present; feral, four-footed predators are naturally repelled.
Sweet, simple and old-fashioned, Convallaria majalis has retained its mainstay status for centuries and lives on in contemporary use. It enjoys a rich history and lore, appearing in various traditions throughout Europe and the U.S. Legend has it that the flower sprang from Eve’s tears as she fled the Garden of Eden; another story tells that the blooms rose from Mary’s tears as she wept at the foot of the cross.
More happily, lily of the valley is known as “fairy ladders” in Celtic lore, named so for the simple, step-like raceme of tender white blooms. Other cultures call it the ladder to heaven. Among the first flowers in spring, Convallaria connotes rejuvenation, a “return to happiness,” simple joy, sweetness and a purity of heart. Each May 1 in France, bunches are sold to celebrate May Day and to signify the beginning of spring.
Photos courtesy of Richard Old, www.xideservices.com
It may seem a silly reason, but the mass of lily of the valley on the side of my house significantly influenced my purchase. (There’s an impulse buy for you.) I took it as a sign of good luck, and it has paid off. Over the years I’ve done nothing to maintain the planting – aside from allowing friends and neighbors to dig pips at will – and each spring I’m reminded why lily of the valley is a lifelong favorite. Perfect, little white flowers. Perfect, enticing fragrance.
Perfection can be relative.
Editorial Director, Horticulture Group