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Lily of the Valley

Convallaria Majalis - Lily of the Valley

Synonymous with the 1st of May, small bunches of lily-of-the-valley (Muguet in French) are given as tokens of affection.  The tradition began (supposedly) in 1560 when the Knight, Louis Girard presented the King with a bunch as a good-luck token for the coming year.  The King then started to present bunches to the ladies of his Court, on the same day, each year.

More recently the plant has become associated with the campaign for workers’ rights as May 1st is better known as the Fête du Travail, when offices close, buses stop and workers march in support of their causes. So on one day we have both the Fête du Travail and the Fête du Muguet.

In fact the lily-of-the-valley is not a member of the lily family (botanical family Liliaceae) it’s a member of the botanical family ‘Ruscaceae’.  It’s had many historical medicinal roles, including as an antidote to poison, a relief for headaches (placed on the forehead) and as a treatment for heart and epilepsy conditions.  However, it is very important to remember that all parts of the lily-of-the-valley are poisonous and are dangerous if ingested. All of this makes it a rather peculiar choice for a token to give a loved one!

The lily-of-the-valley is a low-growing perennial plant, its flowers are normally white but very occasionally they produce a pink tint.   The plant is likely to thrive away from a lot of foot-fall and where it is not too hot.  Full sun, in hot countries, will cut its life dramatically.  Ideally it should be planted in a quiet, moist and well drained spot.  In the right location the plant can live for decades and spread wonderfully.  This spreading can cause problems and so it can be advisable to contain the plant within edgings and be aware of the danger of it over-running natural woodland. 

Lily-of-the-valley has a strong scent and is grown for its perfume.  Once upon a time, everyone purchased it for their grandmother or mother. Lily-of-the-valley soap, perfume and talcum powder abounded and many people will remember proudly buying the obligatory Christmas gift box for a family member.  

The flowers are often seen in wedding bouquets, probably because the flower is meant to indicate humility, chastity, sweetness and purity.  It is also said to bring people luck in love.   Lily-of-the-valley appears in several Christian Bible stories including that the flowers grew from the place where Mary's tears hit the ground at the foot of the cross.

Whether you trust in its symbolism and either gave or received a bunch on May 1st; there’s no doubting the beauty and grace of this little white wonder.  It’s worth having a little patch in the garden to watch each year as it rises, once more, to announce the joys of the month of May.

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