Last week, I discovered that my neighbor’s large, backyard patch of lilies of the valley is slowly spreading into our backyard. I have fond memories of those delightful-smelling flowers. My mother grew them among the tulips she planted beside our house.
Their tiny, white, bell-shaped blossoms always fascinated me. As a child, I loved singing “White Choral Bells,” often in “a round” with other kids joining in a few second later.
“White coral bells upon a slender stalk, lilies of the valley deck my garden walk. Oh don’t you wish that you could hear them ring? That will happen only when the fairies sing.”
Another version says, “...when the angels sing.”
One woman confessed she and her friends sang yet another version when adults weren’t around: “White lacy pants upon the old clothesline, polka dot pajamas but, oh my, they’re mine! I know you wish that you could wear them, too. That will happen only when the seat wears through.”
She added, “Oh, for the days when that innocent rhyme was as naughty as we got.”
Lilies of the valley are known by the scientific name, “Convallaria Majalus,” which means “May Valley.” They aren’t lilies at all, but belong to the asparagus family. That flower represents sweetness and the return of happiness. It can also symbolize humility.
Legend has it that lilies of the valley sprouted from Eve’s tears after God banished her from the Garden of Eden.
In the Middle Ages, lilies of the valley were introduced from Japan to Europe. They eventually spread to North America, Northern Asia and elsewhere. It grows as a wildflower in England and is said to bring luck in love. Perhaps that’s why it’s a favorite flower in royal bridal bouquets, including those of Queen Victoria, Grace Kelly and Kate Middleton.
A French tradition began on May 1, 1561. Someone gave King Charles IX of bouquet of lilies of the valleys as a token of luck and prosperity for the coming year. The following year, he gave that same “perfumed gift” to the ladies in his court. The first of May is known in France as National Labour Day, but it’s also called Lily of the Valley Day.
Curiously, the flower can be used to treat such medical conditions as heart failure, urinary tract infections, kidney stones, epilepsy, edema, strokes, leprosy, skin burns and loss of muscle control.
Surprisingly, I recently learned lilies of the valley are highly poisonous, especially their seeds, roots, stems, and leaves. It’s the plant’s defense against insects and animals. If you touch the plant, never wipe your eyes afterward, because that can cause eye infections.
Ingesting lilies of the valley can cause stomach pains, vomiting, a reduced heart rate, blurred vision, drowsiness, diarrhea, seizures and even death. In addition to humans, the plant is also toxic to cats, dogs and even horses. Snails and slugs find its leaves “rather tasty,” but I don’t know if they live to enjoy it.
I still love lilies of the valley, but I’m rethinking my plan of bringing some into our house.
Leanne Lippincott-Wuerthele, a native of Milton, who has lived in Minnesota and Iowa, has been writing Sunny Side Up for about 40 years. A graduate of Milton Union High School and Milton College,she has written four books. She has two children, three stepchildren, and a blended family that includes 11 grandkids.