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Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley - purity and light but not only…

by Jeanne McCaul, Lauzerte

If you are looking forward to flowering Lily of the Valley (Muguet de Mai) on May 1st, be sure to plant some without delay under your trees, or in some other shady spot. They can also be planted very successfully in pots and gently nursed along to be flowering, just when you want them to.

This woodland flowering plant (botanical name: convallaria magalis) is native throughout the cool and temperate Northern Hemisphere from Asia to Europe to North America. It quite likes limey soil and is an indication of the health of soil since it will not grow in polluted earth.

When happy and well adapted, it spreads quickly to cover vast areas. In fact, Lily of the Valley received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Merit for its ability to cover large areas in shady spots. According to Greek mythology the plant was created by Apollo, so that his 9 muses could tread comfortably and softly... In astrological terms the Lily is placed under the dominium of Mercury, the messenger.

The unmistakable sweet scent and pure white flowers, heralding spring, have ensured that the lily is widely associated with mythology and symbolism. The delicate bell shaped flowers are said to represent the tears of Eve, devastated at being chased from the Garden of Eden, or of Mary, mother of Jesus, mourning the crucifixion of her son, or (in Bulgaria and Macedonia, for instance) any lovely young virgin’s tears. In religious painting, the flowers are a symbol of humility.  They were the flower chosen for the wedding bouquets of Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge.  

Somewhat strangely, the power of men to envision a better world is also attributed to the Lily. It would no doubt be a good idea to offer significant bunches of the flower to a number of contemporary (male) politicians…

According to some sources, the French custom of offering a stem of muguet as a good luck charm, can be dated to a little incident witnessed by Charles IX and his mother, Catherine of Medicis, when they observed a cousin, the Chevalier de Girard, offering his son a flower stem on May 1st. This was in 1560 and as from 1561 Charles IX began offering “good fortune gifts” on May 1st. At some point, Catherine sent the Chevalier de Saint Paul des Trois Châteaux on a mission to the Borghese family in her native Italy. Upon his return, as a sign that the mission had been successful, the Chevalier offered the King a bouquet of muguet which he had gathered on his way.

Another major revival occurred in 1895 when Jenny Cook, lover of the French performer Félix Mayol, gave him a stem of muguet, which he wore in his lapel during the première of a concert in Paris, which turned out to be a major triumph and breakthrough in his career, ensuring both his enduring popularity and that of the muguet.

Amusingly, it seems that, since 1907, the muguet was associated with “la fête des travailleurs” in France, renamed under Pétain during WWII as “la fête DU travail”. The muguet then also replaced the red “eglantine” (wild dog rose), which had been the emblematic flower of the socialist political left.  

It was the floral emblem of Yugoslavia and it was chosen as the national flower of Finland in 1962.

Here in France it has become inextricably entwined with the 1st of May celebrations: the “muguet de Mai” marks Labour Day, and also the end of major hostilities of WWII, if not yet its final end. Many poems and songs sing the muguet’s praises. It has become the gift par excellence to give to anyone you care for on May 1st as a symbol of good luck and therefore of caring. Oh, and if you are lucky enough to be given a stem with 13 bells, there is no knowing where fortune will lead you!

Small wonder then that around 60 million flower stems are sold every 1st of May in France, engendering a turnover of an estimated €35 million and creating 7.000 temporary jobs. However: the cultivation for commercial purposes, picking and especially selling, is strictly regulated by laws and regulations dating back to… wait for it: the French Revolution! So be warned not to try and sell your flowers – you could be in for a bad turn.

Also: most importantly, do be aware that these mythical plants and flowers have a dark side to them too: all parts of the plants, but especially the seeds, are highly toxic, so do not keep the flowers in a closed space, discard the water in the vase and keep out of reach of children.

If you are fascinated by the macabre, many references can be found to poisonous mixes used to send enemies off to eternity or, at the very least, a big scare and major discomfort. There is even a modern day reference to be found in the American series “Breaking Bad”, but we will not spoil your fun if you have not yet seen the series.

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