Images: ©Jouko Lehmuskallio

Lily of the Valley

Convallaria majalis

  • Name also: Lily-of-the-valley, European Lily of the Valley (USA)
  • Family: Asparagus Family – Asparagaceae
    (formerly Lily of the Valley Family – Convallariaceae)
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Rootstock thin, branched, scaly. Forms stands.
  • Height: 15–25 cm (6–10 in.). Stem bristly, sometimes with purple base.
  • Flower: Perianth campanulate–almost spherical, white, approx. 6 mm (0.24 in.) long, fused, 6-lobed. Stamens 6. Gynoecium fused, a single carpel. Inflorescence 6–12-flowered, a one-sided raceme, flowers nodding, short-stalked, strongly fragrant.
  • Leaves: 2 at base, long-stalked. Base sheathed. Blade elliptic–lanceolate, sharp-tipped, with entire margins, parallel-veined, bluish green on top, pale underside. Base of stem with 4–5 white–reddish, scaly bracts.
  • Fruit: Spherical, orange–red, juicy berry.
  • Habitat: Dry and young forest heaths, ridges, forest margins, rocky ridges, banks, broad-leaved forests, coppices. Also ornamental.
  • Flowering time: May–June.

Lily of the valley’s pure white flowers and enchanting fragrance have assured its popularity in flower vases and summer wedding bouquets. It is so highly regarded in Finland that it became the national flower in 1982. It is also an impressive ornamental which has been eagerly transplanted into yards and gardens for generations. Lily of the valley is perhaps at its best, however, in its natural habitats in forest margins and light-filled broad-leaved forests.

Lily of the valley is quite common in southern and central Finland, but it becomes rarer towards the north. The borders of its territory are around Kittilä and Salla, but there are even separate stands in Utsjoki. Coherent lily of the valley stands are usually one and the same vegetatively spreading plant. As the root branches and gets longer the stand expands by about 12 cm (4.8 in.) annually, so the size of the stand is a good guide to its age, as well as the age of the whole forest. The largest stands are thought to be 200–300 years old.

Only a few percent of lily of the valley’s shoots flower, and in a harsh environment they can be completely lacking. Its flowers have no nectar, but their strong fragrance tempts a large group of pollen gatherers. The ripe red berries might look delicious, but they are deadly poison to all mammals. Birds can however eat them and spread the seeds to new habitats. Lily of the valley’s flowers and leaves are also poisonous and unsuitable for plant-eaters except the small, scarlet shining leaf beetle.

Lily of the valley’s scientific name is based on a biblical song in which a girl compares herself to a lily of the valley. In the original text the plant in question was probably the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum), which grows in Finland as an ornamental, but in Europe lily of the valley used to be called Lilium convallium until Linné changed this to its current scientific name. Lily of the valley has had many colloquial names that refer to the tongue-like shape of its leaves. One wonders if lily of the valley would have become the Finnish national flower if it had been called e.g. cow’s tongue.

Other species from the same family
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