February can be a bleak time on the East Coast. Days are short and the sky hangs low on the horizon. But there’s a small-sized perennial whose early, colorful blooms never fail to lift my mood. It’s the lovely, cup-shaped flower called hellebore, commonly known as the Lenten Rose. Continue reading →
When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. And this May, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the spectacular flowers from behind the scenes, so to speak, but also for the magnificent spring weather . Continue reading →
Years ago, I was living in Paris when I was awakened by a knock at the door followed by 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. Little did I know, I had just received my first 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 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.
The King so liked the idea that he decided to start a tradition. From that day forward, on the first of May, he presented bouquets of lilies of the valley to each of the ladies of his court. Thus began the Fête du Muguet, commonly known in English as May Day or Lily of the Valley Day.
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 produces a single stalk of sweetly scented white or pink bell-shaped flowers. Tiny and delicate, the blossoms are enfolded within pairs of glossy, tongue-shaped leaves.
THE STORY OF LILY OF THE VALLEY AND THE NIGHTINGALE
There’s an old legend that 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. However, 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 blooming. She resumed flowering only when the nightingale reappeared (in May) and her happiness was restored.
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 also sent romantic postcards featuring pictures of the flower accompanied by wishes of good luck. This card-sending ritual 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 climates and are believed to have originated in Japan. 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.
Shade-loving, these tiny plants prefer moist, well-drained loamy soil. Don’t plant them in full sun. If you do, their bright green leaves will lose their color and turn shades of brown.
DON’T EAT THEM
Many people don’t know that all parts of the lily of the valley, if ingested, are considered poisonous. When handling the flowers, it’s therefore 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. And whiles sales of flowers on public streets are normally forbidden, they are permitted this day in honor of the long-standing tradition.