Lily of the valley has a long and fascinating history. Over the centuries, these fragrant little blossoms have inspired stories, songs, poetry, festivals and folk traditions. When I was a child, singing rounds was a big thing and my favorite was always:
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 will happen only when the fairies sing.
Another tradition from my childhood was “May Day.” On the first day of May, we would make nosegays with little flowers like violets and lily of the valley. We put these miniature bouquets into baskets made from construction paper or milk cartons, and would run through the neighborhood, secretly hanging the baskets on front doors so our gifts would be a surprise.
Where to Plant Lily of the Valley
Lily of the valley is treasured for its waxy, pure white flowers and unforgettable perfume. In the garden, it’s a shade-loving ground cover with thick, fleshy roots that crowd out weeds and other plants. The shiny, bright green leaves becomes a lush carpet of foliage that keeps landscaped areas looking neatly maintained with little or no attention.
The plants are extremely tough and will grow in almost any type of soil. They also tolerate both cold (zone 3) and heat (zone 9). The roots love moisture, but once established, they are quite drought tolerant. In warmer zones the foliage may stay green throughout the winter.
Consider planting lily of the valley beneath shade trees or shrubs, against the foundation of a building or around a water feature. It’s also a good solution for steep banks and uneven terrain where it’s difficult to maneuver a lawn mower.
Lily of the valley prefers growing in dappled light, but it’s one of the few plants that can take full shade. If your yard has a dark, forlorn area near an outbuilding or under a fence, it may be just the thing. You’ll get a weed-proof ground cover with the bonus of pretty spring flowers.
Right Plant, Right Place
Lily of the valley is a ground cover, and if you use it that way, you will love it. If you treat it like a regular perennial and add it to your flower garden, you may be sorry.
I wish I had known this when I started planting my shade garden. With all those wonderful childhood memories, lily of the valley was one of the first plants that I put in. For the first few years, it grew slowly and gradually filled a 2’ x 2’ area. Then one year it began to spread. Before long, it choked out all my primroses and had gone on to invade the epimediums, heucherellas, pulmonarias and other treasures. I tried to keep it in check by digging out the runners, but didn’t succeed.
Eventually, I hired a neighbor’s son to dig out almost my entire shade garden. Then I combed through both soil and plants to remove any sign of the lily of the valley. I put the roots, shoots and stems into a plastic trash bag and the rest of the plants went back into the garden. Random leaves popped up here and there, but I diligently dug them out and now they’re completely gone.
The good news, is that I had also planted it in a damp area next to our woodshed — the right place for a ground cover! It keeps the area looking neat and gives me all the flowers I need.
A Coveted Cut Flower
Of course, one of the best reasons for planting lily of the valley is to have your own supply of flowers, free for the picking. To my eye, spring’s sweetest flower arrangement is a combination of muscari, violets, primroses and lily of the valley.
Generations of brides have carried bouquets of lily of the valley (including Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge). Fragrances are powerfully linked to memories, and what better way to remember a special day than with this distinctive perfume.
The roots can also be dug up in the fall or in early spring, and forced in pots — as you would do with tulips or hyacinths. I have never tried it myself, but what a gift that would make!
When you have your own patch of lily of the valley, you can celebrate the holiday La Fête du Muguet. On this day – May 1st – people throughout France give little bunches of lily of the valley as tokens of affection to family and friends. To make your own French-style bunches, cut a fistful of flowers and leaves, and tie them together with raffia. Happy Spring!