Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) is not a true lily; it's actually part of the asparagus family, though its foliage is reminiscent of some lilies. The plant typically has medium green leaves that arch about 5 to 10 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide from the center of a clump. And it sports petite, fragrant, white flowers in the spring on long stems that rise from the leaf clumps. Orange-red berries appear later in the fall. Don't let the delicate appearance of lily of the valley flowers fool you. This is a hardy ground cover that grows and spreads quickly. It is best planted in the fall.
|Botanical Name||Convallaria majalis|
|Common Names||Lily of the valley, May bells, lady’s tears, Mary’s tears, Mayflower|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous, perennial|
|Mature Size||6–12 in. tall, 9–12 in. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Partial, full|
|Soil Type||Rich, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Hardiness Zones||3–8 (USDA)|
|Toxicity||Toxic to people and animals|
Lily of the Valley Care
Lily of the valley will grow vigorously in almost any spot with some shade. In fact, gardeners commonly use it under trees where many other plants won’t grow due to the shade. But you have to be careful when planting it that it won't escape its designated bounds. Lily of the valley can quickly spread and overtake a large area. And it is a long-lived plant that doesn’t have any serious issues with pests or diseases. So it might end up choking out other plants in its vicinity. It's helpful to grow it in containers or a raised garden bed to avoid unwanted spread.
This plant needs little attention to thrive once it’s established. Plan to water during dry spells. Also, if flowering has decreased on older plants, it’s often beneficial to dig them up and divide them to refresh their growth. Replant them where they have some more space.
Plant lily of the valley in partial sun to full shade. Direct morning sun is all right, but the plant needs protection from harsh afternoon sun. And if you live in a warmer part of its growing zones, full shade is best.
Lily of the valley prefers organically rich soil with good drainage. But it can grow in a range of soil types, including clay soil. It likes an acidic to neutral soil pH but can tolerate slightly alkaline soil, too.
This plant prefers consistently moist but not soggy soil. Water whenever the soil begins to dry out due to a lack of rainfall and/or hot weather. Soil that is too dry will impede the plant’s growth and flowering.
Temperature and Humidity
Lily of the valley prefers mild conditions with average humidity. Temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit are best. The plant doesn't do well in dry, hot climates. And even in mild climates, it might die back during the hottest summer months. But this typically won't kill the plant; it generally returns the next spring.
Lily of the valley typically doesn’t need any fertilizer unless you have poor soil. If your soil lacks nutrients, you can add a slow-release granular fertilizer in the spring.
Is Lily of the Valley Toxic?
Lily of the valley is highly toxic both to people and to animals when ingested. All parts of the plant, including its orange-red fruits that often tempt children and pets, contain cardiac glycosides, which impact the heart. The toxins are most concentrated in the roots. However, even ingesting a small amount of berries or another part of the plant can cause serious illness and occasionally death. Wild animals generally avoid lily of the valley.
Fortunately, if you need to work with lily of the valley in your garden, you don’t have to worry about experiencing symptoms via skin contact from handling it (unless you have an individual sensitivity to the plant). Just make sure to wash your hands well before handling any food.
Symptoms of Poisoning
The more minor symptoms of lily of the valley poisoning in both people and animals include drooling, nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, and diarrhea. More serious symptoms include seizures, a low heart rate, cardiac arrhythmias, and even cardiac arrest. Symptoms generally occur within 24 hours of ingesting the plant. Contact a medical professional immediately if you suspect poisoning, even if no symptoms are present yet.
Lily of the Valley Varieties
In addition to the typical lily of the valley species found in gardens, you might come across some less common types, including:
- C. majalis 'Rosea' bears rosy pink flowers.
- C. majalis 'Fortin's Giant' has larger flowers than the typical lily of the valley.
- C. majalis 'Flore Pleno' is valued for its double flowers.
- C. majalis 'Hardwick Hall' has a yellow outline to its leaves.
- C. majalis 'Albostriata' has white streaks throughout the leaves.