The bells of lily of the valley
It was the beginning of May and I can still recall the sound of running footsteps on the stairs of my apartment building. Opening the door, I discovered a basket of tiny white flowers on my doorstep. This was Paris in the 1980s, and I had just received my first brin de muguet. The sweet-smelling blooms were none other than lily of the valley; a flower exchanged each year in France on the first of May.
In France, lily of the valley (commonly know as muguet in French) has been given as a gift for centuries. Legend has it that the custom began in the mid 16th century when on May 1, 1561, King Charles IX received a sprig of the tiny flower as a token of good luck. He so liked the idea that he decided to start a tradition. From that day on, he presented bouquets of lilies of the valley to each of the ladies of his court on the first of May. The Fête du Muguet (Lily of the Valley Day) was born.
Portrait of King Charles IX
Lily of the valley is one of May’s most celebrated flowers. Depending on the climate, it typically flowers in mid- to late-April and retains its blooms for most of May. The pint-sized plant consists of a pair of upright, tongue-shaped leaves and a single stalk of sweetly scented white or soft pink flowers. Tiny and bell-shaped, the blossoms lie neatly enfolded within the glossy green leaves.
The story of Lily of the Valley and the Nightingale
An old legend tells of how the first lily of the valley was in love with a nightingale. Every night the nightingale would come to the garden to sing. Being shy, the lily of the valley hid herself from the nightingale. In time, the bird grew lonely and flew away.
Alone in the garden, the lily of the valley waited in vain for the nightingale to return. She eventually grew so sad that she stopped blooming. She resumed flowering only when the nightingale reappeared in May, restoring her happiness.
Symbol of romance
In the early 20th century in France, it was customary for men to give 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, the men sent romantic postcards with elaborate drawings of the flower accompanied by wishes of good luck. The ritual of sending Fête du Muguet cards is still practiced today.
A vintage Fête du Muguet card
How to grow lilies of the valley
Lilies of the valley are indigenous to temperate Eurasian climates and are believed to have originated in Japan. Spreading by tiny rhizomes underground, they naturalize quickly and can become invasive in gardens. Unless you’re up to digging out their roots to control them, it’s best to plant the flowers in their native woodland or in a contained area in the yard. Lilies of the valley prefer shade and moist, well-drained loamy soil and will lose their color, even browning, when planted in full sun.
Unimpeded, lily of the valley wills spread rapidly, but that’s not the only drawback. All parts of the plant are considered poisonous if ingested. When handling the plants, 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.
Since it coincides with National Labor Day on the first of May, the Fête du Muguet is a public holiday in France. Sprigs and bouquets of lilies of the valley are sold everywhere from thousands of roadside stalls that spring up all over France. Sales of flowers on public streets, which are normally forbidden, are permitted on this day in honor of the long-standing tradition.