How to grow: Lily of the valley
To Carol Klein, this plant is the very essence of May.
Today, May Day, people all over France will be following Gallic tradition and giving deliciously fragrant posies of muguets des bois as love tokens.
The scent of muguet, known here as lily of the valley, has inspired perfumiers for centuries. It is a British native: the 16th-century Gerard’s Herbal describes it as growing “on Hampsted Heath, foure miles from London, in great abundance”. The second part of the Latin name, Convallaria majalis, refers to the fact that it flowers in May. In France it appears early in the month, here a little later.
Lily of the valley is found across Europe, Asia and in North America, in dry woodland, usually on alkaline soils and sometimes in the crevices or grikes of limestone pavement. In common with many plants that are impossible to eradicate once they’ve made themselves at home – Reginald Farrer calls it “the worst of all delicious weeds” – it is notoriously difficult to establish. Just below the surface of the soil its stems eke out a living from the leaf litter and radiate outwards, producing tufted roots and aerial shoots at their nodes. This colonising habit, essential in its native habitat as it quests for new food sources, is also the reason for the patchy growth in a garden setting.
If you leave it to wander lily of the valley should flower happily, the stem extending as the round green buds open and allow the bells to hang gracefully. Non-flowering may be due to congestion or overfeeding with nitrogen-rich fertiliser or manure.
The slightly ribbed foliage ends in an elegant point. The leaves are a pristine, fresh green and smooth when new and turn a glorious gold in autumn, when the plant often produces red berries. Variegation, which is much prized, is usually yellow as in ‘Variegata’ or ‘Vic Palowski’s Gold’. In ‘Albostriata’ fine white lines emphasise the contour of the leaves. Even gardeners who usually despise variegation are liable to be entranced by these subtly bi-coloured leaves. Unfortunately they can revert.
Flower colour and form can vary too. Convallaria majalis var. rosea is treasured by some but the dusty-pink colour needs sympathetic neighbours (not clean white or bright pink) if it is not to look merely grubby. Growing it en masse solves the problem. ‘Prolificans’ is a more peculiar clone, which has clusters of tiny flowers along its branching stems. The double-flowered ‘Flore Pleno’ is very pretty and, for those who like everything big, ‘Fortin’s Giant’ should fit the bill.
But for me, nothing beats the simplicity and glorious scent of the classic muguet, the very essence of May.
How to grow
Despite its temperamental reputation, lily of the valley is easy to grow if you buy it ready potted in spring. Dried crowns take ages to get going and do not always survive and it may also prove difficult to establish chunks supplied by friends. In both cases, pot up the crowns separately in loam-based compost, water well and allow them to establish for a year before planting out. (You can do the same in midwinter, forcing the crowns for an early show indoors.)
At planting time, work in some humus, good garden compost or, even better, leafmould. Spread out any underground stems and cover with just a couple of inches of the planting mixture. Mulch well with leafmould.
If you find that flowering is poor, an occasional dose of high-potash organic liquid feed may help.
Lily of the valley is so unpredictable that it is difficult to make any permanent plans for plant partners. Neighbours with similar habits are the best bet.
Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’, which has dimpled flowers of a brilliant blue, will give it a run for its money. Wood anemones can precede and accompany it and Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ makes an interesting bedfellow. However, it is at its best with contrasting greenery – the delicate fretwork of emerging ferns or the divided leaves of aquilegia or corydalis.