Growing Lily of the Valley: Tips and Tales
Lily of the valley is an heirloom perennial that’s delighted generations of gardeners. Over the centuries, these fragrant little blossoms have inspired stories, songs, poetry, festivals and folk traditions. When I was a child, singing “rounds” was something you did with your friends. Several voices would sing the same melody, but starting at different times. 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 not so long ago was May Day. On the first day of May, children would make little bouquets with spring blossoms such as violets, bleeding heart and lily of the valley. I remember nestling these nosegays into baskets that we made from construction paper and milk cartons. We would hang the baskets on front doors around the neighborhood and then run away 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 spread to crowd out weeds and other plants. The shiny, lime green foliage gradually deepens to a lush, dark green and 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, yet once established they are also quite drought tolerant. In warmer zones the foliage may keep its green color 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 planted 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 took off and proceeded to choke out all my primroses. It then went on to take over the epimediums, heucherellas, pulmonarias and other treasures. I tried to keep it in check by digging out the runners, but they are incredibly tenacious.
Eventually, I hired a neighbor’s son to dig up my entire shade garden. All the plants went onto a tarp and then I combed through each root ball to remove any signs of lily of the valley. Roots, shoots, stems and leaves all went into a plastic trash bag. Then I gave the soil another careful raking before replanting the perennials. Over the next few years, random lily of the valley leaves popped up here and there, but I would immediately dig them out. I’m happy to say there’s no sign of them now.
Fortunately, I had also planted lily of the valley in a damp, shady area beside our woodshed. It’s the perfect spot. The foliage keeps the area looking neat and I get to pick all the flowers I want.
A Coveted Cut Flower
Of course, one of the best reasons for planting lily of the valley is to have your own supply of cut 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 such a special day than with this distinctive perfume.
Once you have an establishing planting, you can dig up some of the roots in the fall or in early spring, and stick them into pots to create living bouquets. I have never tried this myself, but it would be a terrific gift.
When you have your own patch of lily of the valley, you can also celebrate the holiday La Fête du Muguet. It is probably the origin of the May Day that I celebrated as a child. On this day – May 1st – people throughout France give little bunches of lily of the valley as tokens of affection to family and friends. The flowers are grown commercially specifically for this special festival. To make your own French-style bunches, just cut a fistful of flowers and leaves, and tie them together with raffia. Happy Spring!