The first time I encountered lily of the valley, I smelled it before I saw it.
I was hiking near a forested swamp and was caught off guard by something that smelled pleasant. But aren’t swamps places for fetid odors and that delicate, lingering stench of standing water? I wondered what it could be.
I followed my sniffer and spotted a large patch of green-leaved plants with stalks of hanging white flowers. It took half a moment to identify what I was seeing because absorbing plant and animal ID guides was a favorite pastime when I was growing up.
These white flowers left an impression on me, and I knew they had to go in my family’s garden. It took some shopping (this was before smartphones and the “Everybody Gets a Website” age), but we acquired some and planted them. Beautiful, fragrant flowers, here I come!
Flash forward a couple of years and that little patch dedicated to lily of the valley grew into a huge swath of nearly uncontrollable green. It took a few seasons of dedicated removal, but we did finally curb the lily of the valley, and added some plastic barriers to prevent it from spreading more in the future.
It’s a beautiful plant with a delightful and aromatic scent, but adding it to the garden without the right preparation can lead to major headaches in the future. Let’s get into what lily of the valley is all about, and how to add it to your yard and garden with minimal future fuss.
Botanically known as Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley grows naturally throughout the northern hemisphere in Europe, Asia, and North America. It’s got a firm grasp on various cultures worldwide in terms of its perceived importance, and with good reason.
A Beautiful Standard
Many countries in Europe are awfully fond of lily of the valley. It’s a traditional (and expensive) bridal bouquet flower for weddings, including the bouquet used in the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
It’s the birth flower of the month of May, the time of year when lily of the valley is most often in full display. C. majalis is also the floral emblem of Yugoslavia, and is Finland’s national flower.
In Christian mythology, lily of the valley is said to have sprung from the ground where the Virgin Mary’s tears fell during the crucifixion. Alternatively, the plant is said to have sprung from the ground when Eve weeped for being kicked out of the Garden of Eden.
The attention to Christian mythology is what earns the plant its nickname, “Mary’s tears.” It also spawned a popular gospel tune by Willie Nelson. It isn’t my style, but hey, maybe you’ll enjoy it!
C. majalis is incredibly toxic. Seriously, every part of the plant is poisonous.
If you’ve got it in the yard or see it in the field, make sure children and animals abstain from eating the red berries, or chomping on the leaves or flowers.
The plant possesses nearly 40 different cardiac glycosides, an organic compound used to treat congestive heart issues. However, in anything but accurate and meticulously measured amounts, these toxins can prove to be deadly.
Lily of the valley produces a very rare amino acid as well, but this also contributes to the toxicity of the plant.
It’s better to be safe than sorry, so wash your hands after handling C. majalis to avoid accidental contamination.
In The Wild
C. majalis is at its best in areas with a cool winter, although it will grow in USDA Hardiness Zones 2-9.
I spotted my first lily of the valley adjacent to a low, wet, and swampy patch in the forest. In the years since then I’ve encountered C. majalis in similar locations, and its preferred habitat tends to include a few key features:
- Shaded from the sun, often growing around the base of trees
- Rich, slightly acidic soil (pH 6-6.5), like the kind you’ll get from the forest floor
- Moist and well drained soil
- Space to spread out and grow
C. majalis is a perennial plant. Two basal leaves grow from the ground and have a lovely flower stalk that pops from between, and it is adorned with up to 12 tiny, fragrant, bell-shaped flowers.
In cooler climates, the leaves can stay year-round, but they tend to shrivel and disappear during hot weather.
Lily of the valley is related to asparagus and grows through stolons and rhizomes, spreading out into huge colonies. This eagerness to spread is why it becomes so difficult to tame in the garden, unless properly restricted.
The tiny little spikes of a new plant are called “pips,” and if that reminds you of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, you aren’t alone.
On the note of colonies, lily of the valley can grow a charming red berry, but only if two different, individual plants are placed together. If a colony is based from one single plant, they’ll never produce the red seeds.
When we plant lily of the valley in our yards, it’s our goal to duplicate these conditions as best we can.
Filling Your Garden With Mary’s Tears
This is one of those garden additions that grows like wild, but only when the right conditions are met. I’ve got a patch of it growing in my front yard underneath a yew hedge that is very unhappy, so believe me when I tell you: you want to make C. majalis happy.
Luckily, it’s easy to take care of that. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Lily of the valley really digs its time in the shade. I think it does the best when it gets some morning light, maybe a few hours worth, and gets to kick back in the cool shade from about 10 a.m. onward.
Although it can handle more sun, in exchange, it needs much more water to perform. And in conditions that are too sunny, it simply won’t bloom.
As the season carries on and we are bombarded with summer sun, expect to see your C. majalis wilting, getting crispy, and looking otherwise unpleasant. This is a natural and expected phase for the plant.
Simply cut back and remove the leaves once they’re more crispy than green to clean up the area.
This plant is a fan of plenty of water and good drainage. Most of the wild lily of the valley I’ve encountered was growing on a slope where it received plenty of water runoff, but didn’t sit in stagnant pools.
If your location for lily of the valley is in a sunny locale, it’ll need plenty of extra water.
This was, I think, the primary failing of my own chunk of C. majalis. The front yard outside my apartment is very dry and seemingly impossible to keep wet with a hose. I started using a soaker hose near the high point of summer and it worked well; just keep in mind that the longer your run of hose is, the weaker the pressure is going to be.
Try to keep your hose length at 25 feet or so. I purchased this product, available from Amazon, and have no complaints. I run a length of 20 foot hose from the spigot to the soaker hose and it works wonderfully.
Mulch aids in watering, but we’ll touch on that in the next section.
Don’t worry about spending lots of money on fancy fertilizers for lily of the valley!
A yearly addition of rich, organic compost is ideal for fueling C. majalis. Apply a nice layer of mulch, maybe 1 to 2 inches in depth, and let it break down naturally to supplement the soil around your lily of the valley.
Keeping It In Check
Simultaneously a pro and con of planting lily of the valley is its desire to spread out and grow. You’ve got a few options here…
1. Let It Go Wild
If you’ve got the space and conditions for it, let that lily fly wild! It’ll happily spread out and fill in whatever space it is given. This can be an attractive method to control erosion.
2. Keep It Fenced In
Use a quality garden edging to cordon off your lily of the valley, to keep it where it’s supposed to be.
This is an appealing choice because it guarantees a thick, healthy covering of C. majalis exactly where you want it to be, and prevents it from sneaking into new terrain.
3. Divide It Regularly
My method of choice is to allow lily of the valley to grow freely, then divide out the chunks I find undesirable in the early winter. November or December is ideal for doing this, but early spring works too.
At this point I’m able to shuffle the plants around to new locations in the yard, or I can offer extras to friends and family.
We don’t need to be too careful with the root stock here. It responds well to being divided, although it may take a full year before transplanted sections will produce flowers.
Troublemakers for C. majalis
You’ll be happy to learn that lily of the valley is rather robust and resistant to most pests. Except for a few weevils that may cause minimum cosmetic damage well after C. majalis blooms, the only creepy crawly that causes trouble is the slug.
A shallow plate with a sacrificial beer offering is usually enough to attract and dispose of slugs in most scenarios. All you need is a willingness to pour out perfectly good beer.
The main trouble afflicting lily of the valley is the potential for fungal problems. Most of these issues can be resolved by watering properly – remember to get the soil wet, not the leaves.
Bonide Neem Oil, available on Amazon
When problems do arise, they can usually be controlled with trusty neem oil.
The majority of fungal problems involve an unattractive looking leaf; it could have yellow halos, a yellow or brown color to the leaf veins, or black and brown spots.
Remember, lily of the valley problems are almost entirely relegated to fungal issues, so proper watering practices and careful neem and fungicide treatments will save the day.
The only other disease common to this plant is southern blight. You can identify this major infection by the mustard-colored ball-shaped structures that it leaves at the base of the plant.
Unfortunately, the only solution here is to remove and destroy the plant entirely, to prevent it from spreading.
Where to Buy
Lily of the valley is often available in the spring at garden centers, usually sold by groups of pips. Amazon has a few available for purchase, but online selection can be limited.
Occasionally you can find small flats available for sale, but most often the plant is sold as a bare root stock; in big box stores you’ll find it near the berries and bulbs sold in boxes in the springtime.
It’s safest to soak the roots in water for an hour or so before planting, to ensure a safe, permanent footing when they’re transplanted.
Until the Next Time
Not every garden has room for C. majalis, but those who do are wise to add it to their plots.
A fragrant, early bloomer that’s ready to go is a special addition that can stand alongside shade and part-sun lovers like astilbe and hosta. Or, for an annual option, consider the striking torenia to complement those soft white stalks of flowers.
Let us know how lily of the valley is working in your garden, and share your advice and anecdotes in our comments section below! And for even more on adding beautiful color and fragrance to your garden, you can find our full catalog of articles about growing flowers here.
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Product photos via Swan, Bonide, and hiddencreekgardens. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Matt Suwak
Matt Suwak was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. This upbringing keeps him permanently affixed to the outdoors where most of his personal time is invested in gardening, bird watching, and hiking. He presently resides in Philadelphia and works under the sun as a landscaper and gardener, and by moonlight as a writer. An incessant questioning of “Why?” affords him countless opportunities to ponder the (in)significance of the great and the small. He considers folksy adages priceless treasures and is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.