One of the first flowers I ever picked as a child was a fistful bouquet of lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) from a neighbor’s yard. Our neighbor, an elderly lady of German ancestry, mesmerized me with fantasy tales of fairies bringing dew in the thimble-sized cups for the queen’s breakfast, of how the blossoms ring when fairies sing, of fairies using the thimble-shaped flowers as a charm against witches’ spells, of how the flower sprigs are added to bridal bouquets to insure a good marriage, and even such notions that the ambrosial scent induced visions of heaven.
Easily captivated, I spent hours and hours with my nose in those blossoms – but somehow, those sought-after visions never materialized.
The stalwart of all English gardens, May bells, Mary’s tears – or lily-of-the-valley, as it’s more commonly known -- is a sweet little shade-loving deciduous perennial. This old-fashioned, extra-hardy plant (Zone 4), standing a mere six to eight inches high, is a floral giant in any woodland garden. It is especially well-suited for use as a ground cover under shrubs and trees as well as long north-facing walls where few other plants will grow, much less blossom.
The very sweet-scented, white, dangling, bell-shaped flowers, though minuscule, pack a powerful punch. Four or five tiny springs can perfume a room, while a small patch in the landscape fills the yard with their intoxicating scent in early spring.
Though completely comfortable in deep shade and easily grown under almost any condition, lily-of-the-valley prefers dappled shade, the rich loamy soil of mature woodlands and ample moisture.
Yes, it's important to know that it can be invasive. And sure, sited in full sun with no additional moisture, it can look bedraggled during the dog days of summer. But site it correctly, contain its spread with barriers, divide it every two to three years, and you will be rewarded with one of spring’s most captivating highlights.
Having a thick carpet of blooming lily-of-the-valley in your beds and borders may be the stuff of your dreams, but before you are tempted to plant those bare-root or potted rhizome divisions, or “pips” as they are called, be forewarned: Like many other plants in your garden, including daffodils and foxglove, every part of this plant is mildly toxic. So keep it away from curious pets and inquisitive toddlers.
As likable a plant as the common lily-of-the-valley is, there are superior cultivars available now that will add additional sparkle and dimension to your garden. Best of all, most of these little charmers exhibit better manners and tend to spread less vigorously than your grandmother’s plants did.
Variegation adds a whole new dimension to Convallaria plants. Along with the spring display of dainty, luxuriantly scented white bells, the foliage of ‘Albomarginata’ has white-edged leaves. ‘Albostriata’ is another variegated variety with white to creamy striping on the leaves that fades to light green in summer. And the adorable minx of my gardens, ‘Aureovariegata’, [see photo at left] has dark green leaves and clearly defined yellow stripes that are bright yellow in early spring, fading only a bit in summer.
The sassy enchantress ‘Rosea’ shows off scads of dainty pink cups, but care must be taken when purchasing this cultivar for there is great diversity. Some plants sold under this name – ‘Rosea’ – sport a barely noticeable wisp of pale pink coloration, while others have strong mauve/pink tones. [See second photo at left.]
‘Dorien’ is of typical height but with larger dancing flowers. ‘Bordeaux’ (12 inches) and ‘Fortin’s Giant’ (18 inches) improve on the favorite with greater stature, longer stems and larger dangling bells. ‘Flore Pleno’ (12 inches) displays double blossoms, and ‘Prolificans’ enhances this flowering pleasure even more by blooming with a wild abundance of single little bells.
More and more of the newer cultivars sport yellow. I fell in love with golden-edged ‘Hardwick Hall’ when I visited its namesake a few years back and then couldn’t pass up the outstanding, larger Convallaria with its cheeky moniker of ‘Cream da Mint’, also with golden edges.
But one of the latest of my prized possessions in this collection is ‘Fernwood’s Golden Slippers’, a sport of ‘Cream da Mint’. Emerging in early spring is radiant chartreuse-yellow foliage, which darkens somewhat in summer, yet never turns totally green. It glows like handfuls of yellow glowsticks when backlit by the sun.
Betty Earl is one of eight garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's the author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest,” is one of eight garden writers who blogs regularly at Diggin' It. She also writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy.
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