Years ago, I was living in Paris when there was a knock at the door followed by the sound of running footsteps. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on my doorstep. Little did I know, I had just received a gift of lilies of the valley, a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May.
A ROYAL HISTORY
In France, lily of the valley (or muguet in French) has been given as a gift for centuries. Legend has it that the custom started on May 1, 1561 when King Charles IX received a sprig of the tiny flower as a token of good luck.
The King liked the idea so much that he decided to start a tradition. From that day forward on the first of May, he presented a bouquet of lilies of the valley to each of the ladies of his court. And thus began in France the Fête du Muguet, otherwise known as May Day.
Portrait of King Charles IX
MAY’S MOST CELEBRATED FLOWER
Over the centuries, lily of the valley has become one of May’s most celebrated flowers. And for good reason. Depending on climate, it typically blooms in mid April and retains its blossoms for most of May. The species itself is small, averaging only 6″. Each plant is composed of a pair of upright, sword-like leaves enfolding a single stalk of sweetly scented, white or pink bell-shaped flowers.
Still, for what it lacks in size, lily of the valley rapidly makes up for in numbers. When given ample shade, it will form low, thick masses of bright evergreen color, making it the perfect complement to other shade-loving perennials.
THE STORY OF LILY OF THE VALLEY AND THE NIGHTINGALE
According to legend, the very first lily of the valley was in love with a nightingale. Every night, the nightingale would come to her garden to sing. Even so, the lily of the valley was shy and hid herself from the bird. So after a while, he grew lonely and flew away.
Alone in the garden, the lily of the valley waited in vain for the nightingale to return. Eventually, she grew so sad that she stopped flowering. She started blooming again only after the nightingale reappeared (in May) and her happiness was restored.
A SYMBOL OF ROMANCE
In the early 20th century in France, men often gave bouquets of lilies of the valley as tokens of affection. They presented their gifts, in accordance with tradition, on the first of May. In their absence, they sent romantic postcards featuring pictures of the flower accompanied by wishes of good luck. French people still practice the card-sending ritual today.
A vintage Fête du Muguet card
A NATIONAL HOLIDAY IN FRANCE
In modern-day France, the first of May coincides with National Labor Day. As a result, the Fête du Muguet is a public holiday. In the days leading up to the event, lilies of the valley are sold from roadside stands that pop up all over the country. And while it’s normally forbidden to sell flowers on public streets, the ban is lifted on May 1 in honor of this long-standing tradition.
HOW TO GROW LILY OF THE VALLEY
Easy-to-grow lilies of the valley are indigenous to temperate climates. Spreading by tiny rhizomes underground, they naturalize easily and can quickly become invasive in the garden. Unless you’re up for continually digging them out to control them, it’s best to plant the flowers in their native woodland or in a contained area in the yard.
And like most shade-loving plants, lilies of the valley prefer moist, well-drained loamy soil. Never plant them in full sun. If you do, their bright green leaves will lose their color and turn ugly shades of brown.
DON’T EAT THEM
Finally, you may be surprised to learn that all parts of the lily of the valley are toxic if eaten. So when handling the flowers, it’s best to wear gloves to prevent any residue from being transmitted to food. Symptoms of lily of the valley poisoning include stomachache and blurred vision.