Dear Readers, I have found such comfort lately in the scent of lily-of-the-valley. One day, while I was wandering in Dorchester and trying to decide what to do after a visit to Dad in the nursing home, I found a tiny garden behind St Peter’s Church. I sat on a wall in a tucked-away corner, and the perfume from these small, shy flowers wafted up and distracted me from my sadness. There is something about some smells that can restore us to the here and now and fill us with a kind of ecstasy. No wonder many religious orders use incense to heighten the senses, though for me honeysuckle or rose would do just as nicely.
And one of the things that I found when I was clearing out Mum and Dad’s bungalow was the Bible that she carried on her wedding day, 62 years ago, and the satin bookmark hung with artificial lily-of-the-valley flowers. I note that Kate Middleton followed Mum’s example when she was married to Prince William in 2011, though she was lucky enough to be able to afford the real thing. As she was married in April, well before the plant’s normal flowering time, I imagine they were greenhouse grown.
Some people find that lily-of-the-valley sets up home in their gardens and is impossible to get rid of – the plant spreads by rhizomes and each colony is clonal, though it does also set seed. It is a native in the UK and across Europe and Asia, and there is even a colony in the Eastern United States, though its origins are open to question. Richard Mabey notes that in the south and east of the UK it favours ancient woodlands on sandy, acidic soils, whereas in the west and north it grows in limestone woods. Wherever it grows it likes shade, and so you would think it would do well in my garden, but, so far, not a bit of it. I shall have to have another go this autumn.
The lily of the valley which grows in St Leonard’s Forest near Horsham is said to have sprung up from the blood of a dragon killed by St Leonard, so maybe this is what my garden is lacking: both a dragon and a saint to come and deal with it.
Although in the UK peak flowering for lily-of-the-valley is in June, in France, where it is known as muguet, it is associated with May Day, and is given as a gift. My new favourite read, Roy Vickery’s Folk Flora, has this story:
“…..during the Second World War, when her home in Bignor, Sussex, was being used as a ‘secret house’ for French Resistance workers, Barbara Bertram recalled that amongst the embarrassing number of presents that the workers brought, perhaps the one she valued most was a bunch of lily of the valley which she found on her breakfast plate one May Day:
‘They had been picked in France the night before, following the charming French habit of giving Our Lady’s Tears on the first of her month’ (Vickery’s Folk Flora pg 423)”
The flower is also worn by participants in the annual Furry Dance in Helston, Cornwall. Gentlemen wear it the right way up, on the left, while ladies wear it upside down, on the right. It is worn by dancers, bandsmen, officials and by those who are ‘Helston-born’. I note from the film here that the bandsmen also often tuck it into their hats, no doubt to keep it out of the way of trombones and French horns.
However, Vickery also points out that lily of the valley is one of those plants that it is considered fatal to bring into the house. There are so many plants that apparently cause destruction on crossing the threshold that it’s a wonder that we ever put anything into a vase. However, lily of the valley is poisonous, so those innocent-looking waxy flowers and the red berries that follow them do need to be treated with a modicum of respect. There is only one recorded case of poisoning in the UK from 1989, when a family of four ate the bulbs under the misapprehension that they were onions (something that has also happened with daffodils). The symptoms of lily of the valley poisoning are similar to those caused by digitalis from foxgloves – the heart beat slows, and heart failure can occur. To add to the fun, the plant contains saponins which can cause gastrointestinal poisoning. This didn’t go unnoticed by Walter White in Breaking Bad, where it was used as a naturally occurring poison.
All of this hasn’t prevented lily of the valley being used as a medicinal plant: with the roots used as a diuretic and the leaves as a poultice for bruises and abrasions.
The scent of lily of the valley has not gone unnoticed by perfumiers, and it was incorporated into Diorissimo, produced by Christian Dior. Dior adored the flower, and it featured on his stationary and in his garden. It is, however, very difficult to produce a perfume from the plant as it contains no essential oils, so any scents that bear its name are likely to be artificial. Although it was first created in 1956 Diorissimo, with its other notes of ylang-yland, amaryllis, boronia and jasmine, continues to be a favourite, and was apparently much loved by Diana, Princess of Wales.
Lily of the valley was associated with the Second Coming of Christ in the Christian tradition,and in the language of flowers it is said to signify the return of happiness. It certainly kicked me out of the doldrums when I spotted it last week, and it seems to be seen by most people as a most hopeful little plant. I am rather with Elizabeth Gaskell on this: in ‘Wives and Daughters’ she writes that:
“I would far rather have two or three lilies of the valley gathered for me by a person I like, than the most expensive bouquet that could be bought!”
And so, to a poem. Well, two poems actually. One is so disconcerting that I wondered about including it, but I think that it is so evocative and unexpected that it’s worth a read. There’s an interesting analysis of it here.
Lily of the Valley by Melissa Stein
In the lake bodies shift
with the currents. Waterskaters
traverse their tapestries. On the bank
grow plants that no longer have names.
Some have tongues to catch the feet
of flying things. Two shoes lie
on the bank as well. A child’s shoes.
A girl’s. Can you see her, dirty dress,
dirty soles? The arms that held her?
In a convulsion of tenderness
that wasn’t tenderness. In a fever
that wasn’t fever. In this heat
the lily of the valley exudes
such sweetness a man can’t think.
All you want to do is stop up
those pealing mouths. Those white
white skirts, unutterably clean.
And, finally, back to my mother, as all roads seem to lead to her at the moment. In her youth she was a delicate, lily of the valley kind of girl, but in her later years she bloomed into someone with a love of vibrant colours, heady, blousy scents and striking textures. This poem by e.e.cummings jumped out at me. Yep, I think this is exactly what Mum’s heaven will be like.
if there are any heavens my mother will (all by herself) have
one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses….
& the whole garden will bow
Photo One by By The_royal_family_on_the_balcony.jpg: Magnus Dderivative work: Blofeld Dr. (talk / cont) – The_royal_family_on_the_balcony.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15064609