Lily of the valley enchants us in spring with its snow-white and fragrant flowers. If you don’t want to wait until May for this beautiful perennial plant, you can pre-cultivate it between November and the beginning of December and let it bloom on the windowsill in winter.
Profile of lily of the valley:
Scientific name: Convallaria majalis
Plant family: asparagus family (Asparagaceae)
Other names: lily-of-the-valley, May bells, Our Lady’s tears, Mary’s tears, glovewort, Apollinaris
Sowing time: autumn
Planting time: spring to autumn, best early spring from March or in autumn
Flowering period: May
Location: sunny to partially shady
Soil quality: sandy to loamy, calcipholous, moderately nutritious
These information are for temperate climate!
Use in: flower bouquets, group planting, lawns, underplanting, overgrowing, flower garden, natural garden, park, forest garden
Winter hardiness: hardy, USDA Plant Hardiness Zones: 4 (-32 °C / -25 °F)
Bee and insect friendly: Yes
Plant characteristics and classification of lily of the valley
Plant order, origin and occurrence of lily of the valley
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 meters (6,200 ft), where it usually forms large groups.
The herbaceous perennial belongs to the asparagus family (Asparagaceae) and belongs to the genus Convallaria. At first glance, the plant resembles the May lily (Smilacina racemosa), which also belongs to the asparagus family. The Latin genus name means “valley basin”, indicating the original occurrence of the plant. The species name majalis refers to the flowering period, which begins in May, around Mother’s Day. Hence, the lily of the valley is a popular classic for creating a bouquet on Mother’s Day. Please note, however, that wild Lily of the Valley may not be picked outside your own garden, as it is a protected plant.
Characteristics of lily of the valley
The lily of the valley has other names like May bells, Our Lady’s tears or Mary’s tear and grows 15 to 25 centimeters high. In spring, long, lancet-shaped leaves sprout from the persistent rootstock, which can easily be mistaken for wild garlic. An olfactory test provides certainty: Wild garlic has a strong garlic-like smell.
The upper and lower leaf surfaces of the lily of the valley each show a dark green color, the upper surface of the leaves is clearly shiny, especially the arch-shaped leaf veins are immediately noticeable to the observer.
The leaves are fused in pairs, between them is the flower stem, which bears about five to 13 small, bell-shaped and thus name-giving white flowers which appear from May to June. 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 the pleasantly sweet-smelling flowers – all pointing in the same direction – bright red berries, each containing two to six seeds, develop from July onwards. They serve blackbirds and other birds as a useful food source. For humans and some animals such as pigs and goats, however, all parts of the plant are poisonous.
Lily of the valley – cultivation and care
Lily of the valley grows mainly in deciduous forests in Western and Central Europe. In order to grow well, the plant prefers a partially shady to shady location. Lily of the valley also feels comfortable in the partially shady areas of ornamental shrubs and under trees, thus offering many planting possibilities.
Lily of the valley needs a moist, warm and humus rich soil. Humus can be incorporated into the garden bed in the form of compost. Ideal is a soil that contains some loam and sand and has an acidic pH between 4.5 and 6.
Planting lily of the valley
From spring to autumn you may plant lily of the valley in the garden at any time as long as the soil is not frozen.
However, the best time to plant is in early spring from March or in autumn.
If you plant lily of the valley in midsummer, you will need to water more often to prevent the rhizomes from drying out. In spring and autumn the soil contains enough residual moisture so that watering is not necessary.
Care / Watering / Fertilization
Lily of the valley belongs to the less demanding plants, only strong sunlight does not bear it. Young plants must be watered sufficiently to grow well. After the lily of the valley withers, the inflorescences are removed, the dark green leaves remain in summer and with their strong color continue to have a decorative effect. To obtain bushy perennials, lily of the valley should be mulched in autumn with a thick layer of leaf soil or rotten compost, additional fertilization is then no longer necessary. If the plants spread too much with their rhizomes, you can always reduce the area with a spade.
It is not absolutely necessary to cut lily of the valley. If you want to prevent uncontrolled spread by self-sowing, cut off the withered flowers before the red berries develop.
The leaves must not be cut. They retract on their own in autumn. In summer, they collect necessary nutrients for the coming garden season.
It is better to wear gloves when cutting or picking lily of the valley. The poisonous plant can cause skin irritation on contact with the skin.
Lily of the valley is best propagated in June or July. Then the roots lie flat in the ground and you can pull them out of the soil with your hands at the edges. Then you lift the plant with a shovel and dig it out. Since lily of the valley is very robust, it is not bad if some roots are damaged in the process. Now the plant can either be potted or transplanted to another place in the garden.
Alternatively, some root pieces are cut off, placed about 10 centimeters (4 in) deep into the soil and the planting holes are filled with compost. If you want to see the first flowers already in winter, you can divide the rhizomes in autumn and let them grow on the windowsill in the pot. Approximately six new plants develop from a root ball of about 15 centimeters (6 in) in size. After flowering, the new lilies of the valley can be planted outdoors in 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 is carried out in the early stages. For this purpose all infested leaves and plant parts are removed and destroyed. Ideally, the affected plant material is disposed off in the household waste. The disposal on the compost is not suitable, because here it can come to the further spreading of the fungus. Used garden tools and implements should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected before the next use.
More rarely an infestation of grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) occurs. If the plant is infected nevertheless, the affected areas must be treated, otherwise the plant will rot and the spores of the fungus could spread to other plants. A potassium-emphasized fertilization is a good way to prevent possible infestation.
Also, the lily leaf beetle occasionally causes damage to the lily of the valley as larva or adult beetle. The six to eight millimeter large insects are shiny and bright red. An environmentally friendly method of getting rid of the small beetles is to collect them by hand from the affected plant. The larvae are located on the underside of the leaves and can be easily rinsed off with a garden hose. Once they are on the ground, they will not find their way back. Also, the scattering of coffee grounds around the plant usually puts the annoying little animals to flight.
Lily of the valley is absolutely hardy and does not need winter protection. To keep the soil moisture, you can put some leaves over the growing sites in autumn.
If you grow lily of the valley in a pot, you must winter the plants frost-free.
Use in the garden
In the garden, the lily of the valley is mainly used to underplant groups of trees and shrubs. In the midst of tulips and grape hyacinths, the small perennial plant offers a beautiful look every year in spring. Also, as a delicate cut flower in a bouquet as a Mother’s Day gift or as a vase decoration it is well suited. You only have to take care that children and animals do not drink the water of the flower, because the poisonous ingredients of the plant are transferred into the water after some time.
Despite its toxic properties, lily of the valley also has its place in medicine: the dried, above-ground plant parts contain heart-active glycosides, similar to strophanthin, but less toxic. In case of heart diseases, one can – after consulting a doctor – take such preparations. Lily of the valley was formerly used as an ingredient for snuff as well as for prevention and aftercare of stroke and epilepsy. In the visual arts, lily of the valley is a symbol of medicine as well as chaste love, humility and modesty. The handsome plant also plays a role in literature, as it was mentioned by numerous poets such as Eichendorff or Fallersleben and inspired other people to create artistic works.