Flowering time (month)
Ornamental or utility value
sunny to semi-shady
moderately dry to fresh
alkaline to slightly acidic
The lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) is native to Europe, Asia and North America. It grows in deciduous forests – mainly beech forests – and meadows. The perennial herbaceous plant can also be found in the mountains at altitudes of up to 1,900 metres, where it mostly forms large groups. The perennial shrub comes from the asparagus family (Asparagaceae) and belongs to the genus Convallaria. The Latin generic name means as much as “valley boiler”, with which it refers to the original occurrence of the plant. The species name majalis refers to the flowering period, which begins in May around Mother’s Day. Consequently, the lily of the valley is a popular classic for the design of the Mother’s Day bouquet. Please note, however, that wild lilies of the valley must not be picked outside your own garden, as they are protected by law.
Appearance and growth
The lily of the valley bears other names such as May flower, Mairöschen or Mai lily and grows to a height of 15 to 25 centimeters. In spring, long lanceolate leaves sprout from the persistent rootstock, which can easily be confused with wild garlic. An odour test brings certainty: The bear’s garlic has a strong garlic-like odour. The upper and lower leaf sides of the lily of the valley each show a dark green colour, the upper leaf side is clearly shiny, especially the arched leaf veins are immediately noticeable. The leaves have grown together in pairs, between them sits the flower stem, which from May to June bears about five to 13 small, bell-shaped and thus name-giving, white flowers. A particularly unusual and easy-care variety is the garden lily of the valley ‘Rosea’, which brings beautiful accents to the flower bed with its light pink flowers.
From July, the pleasantly sweet-smelling flowers – all pointing in the same direction – form bright red berries, each containing two to six seeds. They serve blackbirds and other birds as useful food-sources. For humans and some animals such as pigs and goats, however, all plant parts are poisonous.
Despite its toxic properties, the lily of the valley also finds its place in medicine: the dried, above-ground plant parts contain glycosides with a cardiac effect, similar to strophanthin, but less toxic. In the case of diseases of the heart, such preparations can be taken after consultation with a doctor. In the past, lily of the valley was used as a component of snuff as well as for prevention and aftercare of strokes and epilepsy. In the fine arts, the lily of the valley stands as a symbol for medicine as well as for chaste love, humility and modesty. This handsome plant is also present in literature, as it was mentioned by numerous poets such as Eichendorff and Fallersleben and inspired other people to create works of art.
Location and soil
The lily of the valley grows mainly in deciduous forests in Western and Central Europe. In order to grow well, the plant prefers a semi-shady to shady location and a moist, warm and humus-rich soil. Humus can be worked into the garden bed in the form of compost. An ideal soil is one that contains some clay and sand and has an acid pH between 4.5 and 6. The lily of the valley also feels at home in the semi-shade of ornamental shrubs and under trees and offers so many planting possibilities.
In the garden the lily of the valley is mainly used for underplanting groups of trees. In the midst of tulips and grape hyacinths, the small perennial shrub offers a beautiful sight every year in spring. It is also suitable as a graceful cut flower in a bouquet as a mother’s day present or as a vase ornament. It is only necessary to make sure that children and animals do not drink the flower water, as the poisonous substances contained in the plant will pass into the water after some time.
Planting and care
The lily of the valley belongs to the less demanding plants, but it does not tolerate strong sunlight. Young plants must be watered sufficiently to grow well. After the lily of the valley has faded, the inflorescences are removed, the dark green leaves remain in the summer and continue to have a decorative effect with their strong colour. In order to obtain bushy shrubs, lily of the valley should be mulched in autumn with a thick layer of deciduous soil or rotten compost, additional fertilization is no longer necessary. If the plants spread too much with their rhizomes, you can reduce the area with the spade at any time.
The lily of the valley reproduces best in June or July. Then the roots lie flat in the ground and you can remove them from the ground with your hands at the edges. Then lift the plant with a shovel and dig it out. Since lilies of the valley are very robust, it is not bad if some roots are damaged. The plant can now either be potted or transplanted to another place in the garden, or some root pieces can be cut off, placed about ten centimeters deep in the soil and the plant holes filled with compost. If you want to see the first flowers in winter, you can divide the rhizomes in autumn and place them on the windowsill in the pot. Approximately six new plants develop from a root ball about 15 centimeters in size. After flowering, the new lilies of the valley can be planted outdoors at their future location.
Diseases and pests
Some lilies of the valley are attacked by the rust fungus Puccinia sessilis var. sessilis. As with most fungal diseases, control is only successful if it takes place at an early stage. All infested leaves and plant parts are removed and destroyed. Ideally, the affected plant material should be burnt. If this is not possible, household waste can be disposed of. The disposal on the compost is not suitable, because here it can come to the further spreading of the mushroom. Used garden tools and implements should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before the next use. If the plant becomes diseased nevertheless, the affected areas must be treated, otherwise the plant will rot and the spores of the fungus could migrate to other plants. A possible infestation can be well prevented with potassium-based fertilization.
The lily chicken also occasionally causes damage to the lily of the valley as a larva or adult beetle. The six to eight millimetre large insects are shiny and bright red. An environmentally friendly way to get rid of the small beetles is to collect them from the affected plant by hand. The larvae are located on the underside of the leaf and can easily be rinsed off with a garden hose. Once they’re on the ground, they can’t find their way back. The spreading of coffee grounds around the plant also causes the annoying little animals to flee in most cases.
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I am Don Burke, one of the authors at My Garden Guide. I am a horticulturist that cultivates, grows, and cares for plants, ranging from shrubs and fruits to flowers. I do it in my own garden and in my nursery. I show you how to take care of your garden and how to perform garden landscaping in an easy way, step by step.I am originally from Sydney and I wrote in local magazines. Later on, I have decided, more than two decades ago, to create my own blog. My area of specialization is related to orchid care, succulent care, and the study of the substrate and the soil. Therefore, you will see many articles dedicated to these disciplines. I also provide advice about how to improve the landscape design of your garden.