The British Rock band Queen even wrote a song about it. Despite the common name, this plant is not actually a lily. Botanically, it's classified as part of the asparagus family. Lily of the Valley signifies the return of happiness and good fortune.
greeting card with lily of the valley image

White coral bells upon a slender stalk,

Lilies of the valley line my garden walk.

Oh don't you wish that you could hear them ring?

That can only happen when the elves all sing!

bed of blooming lily of the valley

Convallaria majalis is known by several common names, including May bells, Our Lady's tears, and Mary's tears. Its French name, muguet, sometimes appears in the names of perfumes having the flower's scent. In old England, the plant was known as glovewort or Apollinaris, from a legend attributing its discovery to the Greek and Roman god Apollo.

The plant

This herbaceous perennial often forms extensive colonies by way of spreading underground stems called rhizomes. New upright, dormant shoots are called pips. In spring, the pips grow into leafy shoots that remain connected to the other shoots under the ground. The stems grow 6–12 inches tall and have one or two leaves.

lily of the valley emerging in the spring

During spring, the woodland plant displays sweetly-scented, bell-shaped, pendant sprays of white flowers. It is a Eurasian species that can survive in mountains up to 4,900 feet in elevation. The plant is native to cool, temperate Asiatic and European regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Convallaris majalis 'Rubra' is the pink variety.

A high content of cardiac glycosides makes this plant highly poisonous if consumed by humans or domestic animals.

close up of lily of the valley blooms

The flowers have six white or pink tepals joined at the base to form a bell. Fruit is a small orange-red berry that contains several large whitish or brownish seeds. Plants are self-sterile, and colonies consisting of a single clone do not set seed.

Although there has been some debate about the status of the American variety (Convallaria majuscula Greene), the USDA lists it as a native plant.

lily of the valley growing around a stump

Ecology

Convallaria majalis performs best in partial shade during warm summers. It prefers silt or sandy soil that is acid to moderately alkaline with a large amount of humus. According to The Royal Horticultural Society, slightly alkaline soils are best.

Lily of the Valley is used for food by the larvae of several moths and butterflies. Adults and larvae of the leaf beetle (Lilioceris merdigera) are also able to tolerate the cardenolides and feed on the leaves.

variegated lily of the valley plants

Grow it

May's birth flower is widely grown for its scented flowers and as a groundcover for shady locations. It has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit. In favorable conditions, it forms large colonies.

Various cultivars are grown, including those with double flowers, rose-colored flowers, variegated foliage and several that grow larger than the typical species.

  1. C. majalis 'Albostriata' has white-striped leaves.
  2. C. majalis 'Green Tapestry', 'Haldon Grange', 'Hardwick Hall', 'Hofheim', 'Marcel', 'Variegata' and 'Vic Pawlowski's Gold' are also variegated.
  3. C. majalis 'Berlin Giant' and C. majalis 'Géant de Fortin' are larger cultivars.
  4. C. majalis 'Flore Pleno' has double flowers.
  5. C. majalis 'Rosea' is sometimes found under the name C. majalis var. rosea and has pink flowers.

pink lily of the valley flowers

Convallaria majalis can be grown in pots and is often forced into bloom during the winter.

All parts of the plant are potentially poisonous, including the red berries that may be attractive to children. If ingested, the plant can cause abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and irregular heartbeats.

red lily of the valley berries

Folk medicine

This plant has been used in folk medicine for centuries. There is a reference to "Lily of the valley water" in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped, where it is said to be "good against the Gout", "comforts the heart and strengthens the memory", and "restores speech to those that have the dumb palsey".

However, there is no scientific evidence that lily of the valley has any effective medicinal uses for treating human diseases. So beware of any folk medicine 'cures'.

Name origin

The name is apparently a reference to the phrase "lily of the valleys" found in the Bible (Song of Solomon 2:1 שׁוֹשַׁנַּת הָעֲמָקִים). European herbalists began using the phrase in the late 15th or 16th century to refer to a specific plant species. The term convallaria was coined by Carl Linnaeus.

Duchess of Cambridge with her bridal bouquet
(Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace holding her Lily of the Valley bridal bouquet; photo by Magnus D, CC-BY-2.0)