This perennial plant is a low-growing ground cover hardy in zones 2-7. Its dainty bell-shaped white flowers emerge in April or May. Their tiny size bely a powerfully sweet scent. A lily of the valley-based fragrance, Muguet de Bois from Coty, entered the perfume market in 1941. Green, innocent and light, it remains beloved by women of all ages.
Lily of the valley's common name comes from its preferred habitat of shady woodlands. Another nickname, “ladder to heaven”, refers to the step-like arrangement of the flowers along the stem. The Irish sometimes call the plant “fairy ladders”. The second part of the plant’s scientific name, Convallaria majalis, means “of or belonging to May”.
May Day in France
In France, the first day of May is a public holiday. Although its official name is La Fête du Travail, or National Labor Day, it’s also called La Fête du Muguet, or Lily of the Valley Day. In the week before the holiday, people commonly purchase bunches of the flowers, called "porte-bonheur,” (literally “bringer of happiness”) to bestow as gifts. The tradition is supposed to have begun on May 1, 1561, when King Charles IV received a lily of the valley posy as a lucky charm.
Traditions and Symbolism
One legend says lily of the valley sprang from the tears of Eve when she was cast from the Garden of Eden. They are also sometimes called “Mary’s Tears,” supposedly shed by the mother of Jesus at his death on the cross. Like many white flowers, they have throughout the centuries symbolized purity, virtue and humility. In the language of flowers, lily of the valley stands for a “return to happiness”.
Use as a Wedding Flower
The list of famous brides choosing lily of the valley as part of their wedding flowers includes Barbra Streisand and Princess Diana. Most recently, Kate Middleton’s small and delicate bridal bouquet, containing all in-season, UK-grown species, consisted primarily of lily of the valley.