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Lilliputian Lily of the Valley

By Audrey Stallsmith

convallaria majalis

He's the Lily of the Valley,
The bright and Morning Star.
He's the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.

from hymn, "The Lily of the Valley," by C. W. Fry

Lily of the valley's ladder of miniature bells seems just the right size for the little people. So the flower is frequently called fairy bells.

Despite its delicate appearance, however, this "lily" is one tough plant. When I started my current garden, near a site where an old house had once stood, there was already an Oriental poppy and some lilies of the valley growing there. Although the poppy has gotten crowded out by other plants, the "lilies" have since spread to carpet an entire hillside.

The plant is also known as May lily, Our Lady's tears, lily constancy, ladder to heaven, male lily, and convall lily. Its official title, convallaria majalis, derives from the Latin convallis ('valley") and majalis ("May-flowering"). In France, its bells frequently decorate lapels on May Day.

Lily of the valley supposedly sprang from the blood shed in the fierce struggle between St. Leonard and the dragon Malitia. Due to the flower's pristine color and its association with the Virgin Mary's tears, it often symbolizes purity, and is considered the 5th thing that a bride should carry. In the Language of Flowers, the plant's low stature associates it with "humility." Perhaps because it signifies the return of spring, it also stands for the "return of happiness."

In The Fragrant Path, Louise Beebe Wilder reports that "In the old credulous days. . .a miraculous water was distilled from the chaste flowers of the Lily-of-the-Valley. It was called Golden Water, and whoso drank of it found new strength and vigor animating his old and tired limbs and new courage in his heart."

Gerard asserts that this "water" (actually wine), often served in golden vessels due to its perceived value, can "restore speech unto those that have the dumb palsie and that are falne into the Apoplexie, and are good against the gout, and comfort the heart. The water aforesaid doth strengthen the memory that is weak and diminished. . ." Folklore holds that the distillation, dabbed on the forehead and nape of the neck, also restores common sense!

Convallamarin, which is derived from lily of the valley, does slow and strengthen the heart in a manner similar to digitalis (foxglove). Although it is not considered as poisonous as digitalis, convallamarin can still be toxic--especially to children. I seem to recall reading about a little girl who died after drinking water from a vase that contained some "fairy bells." So, these days, it's probably best to seek restoration only in the plant's delicious scent.

That perfume was once believed seductive enough to lure the nightingale into mating. And I can almost guarantee that the beauty and fragrance of May flowers will revive the weariest heart-without a resort to pharmaceuticals!

Convallaria majalis image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.