The bells of lily of the valley
Years ago I was living in Paris when I was awakened by a knock at the door followed by the sound of running footsteps. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on the doorstep. Little did I know, I had just received my first gift of lilies of the valley, a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May.
A ROYAL HISTORY
In France, lily of the valley (or muguet in French) has been given as a gift for centuries. Legend has it that the custom began in the mid 1500s. This is when, on May 1, 1561, King Charles IX received a sprig of the tiny flower as a token of good luck.
As it turned out, the King so liked the idea that he decided to start a tradition. From that day forward, on the first of May, he presented a bouquet of lilies of the valley to each of the ladies of his court. And thus began the Fête du Muguet, known in English as Lily of the Valley Day or May Day.
Portrait of King Charles IX
ONE OF MAY’S MOST CELEBRATED FLOWERS
An early spring bloomer, lily of the valley is one of May’s most celebrated flowers. Depending on the climate, it typically blooms in mid- to late-April and retains its blossoms for the better part of May. Small in size but big at heart, it produces a single stalk of sweetly-scented white or pink bell-shaped flowers enfolded in a pair of glossy, tongue-shaped leaves. The foliage stays deep green all season and pairs beautifully with other shade-loving plants.
THE STORY OF LILY OF THE VALLEY AND THE NIGHTINGALE
Once upon a time, the very first lily of the valley was in love with a nightingale. Every night the nightingale would come to the garden to sing. However, the lily of the valley was shy and hid herself from the bird. So after a while, he grew lonely and flew away.
Alone in the garden, the lily of the valley waited in vain for the nightingale to return. Eventually, she grew so sad that she stopped blooming. She resumed flowering only when the nightingale reappeared (in May) and her happiness was restored.
A SYMBOL OF ROMANCE
In the early 20th century in France, men often gave bouquets of lilies of the valley as tokens of affection. They presented their gifts, in accordance with tradition, on the first of May. In their absence, they sent romantic postcards featuring pictures of the flower accompanied by wishes of good luck. The card-sending ritual is still practiced today.
A vintage Fête du Muguet card
A NATIONAL HOLIDAY IN FRANCE
Since it coincides with National Labor Day on the first of May, Lily of the Valley Day is a public holiday in France. Sprigs and bouquets of the flowers are sold everywhere from thousands of roadside stalls that spring up all over France. And while sales of flowers on public streets are normally forbidden, they are permitted on this day in honor of the long-standing tradition.
HOW TO GROW LILY OF THE VALLEY
Easy-to-grow lilies of the valley are indigenous to temperate climates and are believed to have originated in Japan. Spreading by tiny rhizomes underground, they naturalize easily and can quickly become invasive in the garden. Unless you’re up for continually digging them out to control them, it’s best to plant the flowers in their native woodland or in a contained area in the yard.
Naturally shade-loving, these tiny plants prefer moist, well-drained loamy soil. Don’t plant them in full sun. If you do, their bright green leaves will lose their color and turn ugly shades of brown.
DON’T EAT THEM
You may be surprised to know that all parts of lily of the valley, if ingested, are toxic. Therefore, when handling the flowers, it’s best to wear gloves to prevent any residue from being transmitted to food. Symptoms of lily of the valley poisoning include stomachache and blurred vision.