Convallaria majalis is native to northern Europe and Asia, where plants can be found producing small, beautifully-scented, white flowers in shady woodlands in late spring. The flowers are visited primarily by flies and beetles. The apparently single-stemmed plants are frequently connected together by an extensive rhizome (horizontal underground stems) system to form huge, long-lived colonies; some colonies are reported to be more than 600 years old.
Despite being highly poisonous, lily-of-the-valley has been documented as a herbal remedy. It contains a cocktail of cardiac glycosides, some of which are similar to those found in Digitalis purpurea (foxglove). These, even in small amounts, can cause reactions such as abdominal pain, vomiting and skin rashes. The drug convallatoxin, extracted from Convallaria majalis, has successfully been used to treat patients recovering from strokes, especially when speech is slow to return.
Despite its potentially hazardous nature, Convallaria majalis is a well-loved plant. In 1967 it became the national flower of Finland, and its Finnish common name, Kielo, has become a popular girl's name. Convallaria majalis is strongly associated with the Victorian craze that associated plants and meaning into the 'language of flowers'.
Flowers have been used to convey meaning since the early Chinese dynasties, although its modern introduction into Europe appears to have been by the King of Sweden in 1714. Once Queen Victoria became a great fan of the 'language', its popularity was assured and spread. Young ladies studied botany and florigraphy as allied subjects; more than 400 books were written on the 'language of flowers'. In the case of Convallaria, its meaning is associated with humility. A meaning that is thought to derive from early religious paintings, an association with the Second Coming and a belief that at Christ's crucifixion, Convallaria grew where Mary's tears fell to the ground. Lily-of-the-valley in a bridal bouquet and button hole traditionally symbolizes 'return of happiness'.
As a cut flower, lily-of-the-valley has a very short shelf life, and so is usually purchased from wholesalers with the roots still attached. Although Convallaria majalis bloom's in the UK in May, their popularity means that they are available as cut flowers all year round.
Convallaria majalis is best planted 'in the green', rather like snowdrops, since they can be difficult to establish from seed. Once established in a garden, lily-of-the-valley plants are very easy to look after and will continue to delight year after year in a shady corner.
Greenaway K (1884) Language of flowers. George Routleage and Sons.
Grieve M. 1931. A modern herbal. Cape.
The impact of extensive clonal growth on fine-scale mating patterns: a full paternity analysis of a lily-of-the-valley population (Convallaria majalis). Annals of Botany 111: 623-628.