Recognize that scent? It's lily of the valley, and Master Gardener Nancy Crowe has some valuable advice about how to grow them.
So much of our memory bank seems to reside in our noses. The smell of baking bread brings us back to a mother’s kitchen. Pipe smoke has us glancing around for an uncle we haven’t seen in years. A whiff of a certain cologne reminds us of someone we tried to forget. Garden memories are no different.
The soft, sweet fragrance of lily of the valley takes me to my great-aunts’ back yard in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s. May and Minerva were the unmarried sisters the rest of the family referred to as “the girls.” May was the fiercely independent one who owned a public accounting business at a time when women could not vote. Minerva was the shy, delicate one who kept her sister’s books, tended the garden and had an inner toughness few saw. She planted the lilies of the valley along the north side of their detached garage, where they bloomed year after year.
(Brief linguistic interruption: You often see the name of this flower written as lily-of-the-valley. Merriam-Webster does not hyphenate it, and since hyphenated phrases notoriously cause awkward line breaks, neither shall I.)
There are two kinds of flowering plants: monocots and dicots. Like other lilies, grains, onions and grasses, the lily of the valley is a monocot — one seed leaf, flower parts in multiples of three and parallel leaf veins. The rest (and majority) are dicots — two seed leaves, flower parts in multiples of four and five and branched leaf veins.
The lily of the valley is the birthday flower for the month of May and a popular choice for wedding bouquets. Symbolically, it represents the return of happiness and has been associated with both Christ and the Virgin Mary. With its fragrance and delicate white blossoms, lily of the valley is the perfect flower to transport you to a simpler time. But just as the good old days weren’t always good (and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems), to quote Billy Joel, you have to handle this flower on its own terms. With gloves, to be extra safe.
The first caution about lily of the valley: All parts of the plant are considered poisonous if ingested. If you have children or pets who might nibble on the plants, or if you think a passing meter reader or missionary may get a sudden craving, think twice about planting it. Lily of the valley plants are toxic enough that you may want to wear gloves while handling them. Thorough hand washing should, of course, be a part of your post-gardening routine, gloves or no gloves.
Second caution: Lily of the valley is invasive. It would have made a perfect 1950s flick: the plant with the dainty white flowers takes over the yard and then the postwar bungalow of a nice nuclear family, which of course includes a teen daughter with a shattering scream and a football-player boyfriend rendered helpless by the malicious monocots. Cut to the men in horn-rimmed glasses in Washington, examining reports of the horrific lily of the valley takeover and muttering that the communists must be behind it. Point is — the lily of the valley will thrive at the expense of any other plants you try to grow in the same flowerbed. Its underground rhizomes spread vigorously. You can try digging it out, but even a tiny root left behind will regenerate.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, lily of the valley works best in massed plantings anyway. Let them have a bed to themselves. You can also plant them in containers or raised beds to restrict their access to the ground. Or you can just plant them where you don’t mind having them take over — say, as groundcover. My aunts’ lilies of the valley were tidy and contained to their modest space by the garage. Aunt Minerva must have used her gentle persuasion and worked something out with them.
Lily of the valley prefers moist, cool conditions: mostly to partly shaded, morning sun only. The shade requirement gets a little more important the further south you grow it; a lily of the valley in Louisville may need a little more shade than one in Detroit, or even Fort Wayne.