When we moved into our house, 20 years ago, there were a few Lily of the Valley plants out in the back corner of the yard. A few years later, I had a chance to add some more, transplanting them from someone else’s garden. Since then, they have come up every spring, with no work on my part. I’ve also dug out enough to fill a few bags, and given them away, and there are still plenty left.
Lily of the Valley is a perennial that grows in temperate areas all over the world. Here in the United States, they are hardy from zone 3 to 7, and sometimes zone 2. They are not picky about the type of soil, as long as it is moist and well drained. They grow well in the deep shade under trees, where nothing else will grow, but with enough water, they will also tolerate full sun. To keep the plants green through the growing season, they must receive constant moisture, otherwise the foliage will die back.
The genus Convallaria, in the family Ruscaceae, includes only 3 species, or less, depending on who you ask. The plants of all three species go by the common name Lily of the Valley. I was not able to find out the origin of this name, but I found loads of other common names that refer to the same species: May Lily, May Bells, Lily Constancy, Ladder-to-Heaven, Male Lily, Convallaria, Our Lady’s Tears, Convall-lily, and Jacob’s ladder. I’d sure like to know the story behind some of those!
Lily of the Valley grows and spreads underground with rhizomes, which are like thick roots that grow sideways. The rhizomes have buds, called pips, which produce new stalks and leaves in the spring. I was surprised to learn that they make a great ground cover, at least until frost, and can be invasive. In fact, it is recommended that they be planted in containers, or in beds with closed borders, so they cannot spread. Apparently, they are very easy to transplant, and very difficult to remove. Leaving only a small piece of rhizome intact will result in more plants next spring. The conditions must not be right in my yard for such wild growth because my Lily of the Valley is not even close to becoming a ground cover. There are new plants each spring, but even after 20 years, they are scattered widely.
Each Lily of the Valley plant usually has 2 leaves that grow from the base of the plant. It also has a flower stalk, which has no leaves. This stalk has flowers along one side, small white, bell shaped flowers with a pleasing scent. The flowers appear in late spring, thus the common names that include “May”. Most are around 8 inches tall, though there are “giant” varieties that grow to be about 12 inches. Once only found in white, the flowers can now be purchased in pink, and double varieties. Foliage, formerly glossy green, now comes in dappled, white striped, yellow striped and variegated.
Like a lot of plants in my yard, the leaves, flowers and glossy red berries that appear after blooming are poisonous. Eating any part of this plant can be fatal for dogs, cats, horses and humans. Make sure you wash your hands after handling them. In spite of their toxicity, Lily of the Valley has been used as medicine, believed to strengthen memory, restore speech and make one have good common sense. Maybe the common sense to avoid eating a poisonous plant?