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Convallaria majalis / /, commonly known as the Lily of the Valley, is a sweetly scented (and highly poisonous) woodland flowering plant that is native throughout the cool temperate Northern Hemisphere in Asia, Europe and in the southern Appalachian Mountains in the United States.
It is possibly the only species in the genus Convallaria (or one of two or three, if C. keiskei and C. transcaucasica are recognised as separate species). In the APG III system, the genus is placed in the family Asparagaceae, subfamily Nolinoideae (formerly the family Ruscaceae). It was formerly placed in its own family Convallariaceae, and, like many lilioid monocots, before that in the lily family Liliaceae.
C. majalis is a herbaceous perennial plant that forms extensive colonies by spreading underground stems called rhizomes. New upright shoots are formed at the ends of stolons in summer, these upright dormant stems are often called pips. These grow in the spring into new leafy shoots that still remain connected to the other shoots under ground, often forming extensive colonies. The stems grow to 15–30 cm tall, with one or two leaves 10–25 cm long, flowering stems have two leaves and a raceme of 5–15 flowers on the stem apex.
The flowers are white tepals (rarely pink), bell-shaped, 5–10 mm diameter, and sweetly scented; flowering is in late spring, in mild winters in the Northern Hemisphere it is in early March. The fruit is a small orange-red berry 5–7 mm diameter that contains a few large whitish to brownish colored seeds that dry to a clear translucent round bead 1–3 mm wide. Plants are self-sterile, and colonies consisting of a single clone do not set seed.
Convallaria majalis is a popular garden plant, grown for its scented flowers and for its ground-covering abilities in shady locations. It has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit. In favourable conditions it can form large colonies.
Traditionally Convallaria majalis has been grown in pots and winter forced to provide flowers during the winter months, both for as potted plants and as cut flowers.
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The odor of lily of the valley, specifically the ligand bourgeonal, attracts mammal sperm in a dramatic manner. The 2003 discovery of this phenomenon prompted a new wave of research into odor reception, but no evidence was found that the female sex organ has similar odors of any kind.
The flower is also known as Our Lady's tears or Mary's tears from Christian legends that it sprang from the weeping of the Virgin Mary during the crucifixion of Jesus. Other etiologies its coming into being from Eve's tears after she was driven with Adam from the Garden of Eden or from the blood shed by Saint Leonard of Noblac during his battles with a dragon.
The name "lily of the valley" is used in some English translations of the Bible in Song of Songs 2:1, but the Hebrew phrase "shoshannat-ha-amaqim" in the original text (literally "lily of the valleys") doesn't refer to this plant. It's possible, though, that the biblical phrase may have had something to do with the origin or development of the modern plant-name.
It is a symbol of humility in religious painting. Lily of the valley is considered the sign of Christ's second coming. The power of men to envision a better world was also attributed to the lily of the valley.
In Germanic mythology lilies are associated with the virgin goddess of spring Ostara. The lily symbolizes life to Pagans and the blooming of lily of the valley flower heralds the feast of Ostara. The sweet fragrance and whiteness of the flowers symbolize the humility and purity of its patron goddess.
Other names include May lily, May bells, and muguet (French). In Bulgarian and Macedonian it's called момина сълза /momina.səlza/ and момина солза respectively, meaning "lass's tear".
Its scientific name, majalis or maialis, means "of or belonging to May", and old astrological books place the plant under the dominion of Mercury, since Maia, the daughter of Atlas, was the mother of Mercury or Hermes.
In the "language of flowers", the lily of the valley signifies the return of happiness. Legend tells of the affection of a lily of the valley for a nightingale that did not come back to the woods until the flower bloomed in May.
Lily of the valley is a popular flower for weddings, although it can be very expensive. Lily of the Valley was featured in the bridal bouquet at the Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Lily of the valley was also the flower chosen by Princess Grace Kelly to be featured in her bridal bouquet.
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At the beginning of the 20th century it became tradition in France to sell lily of the valley on international labour day, May 1, by labour organisations and private persons without paying sales tax (on that day only) as a symbol of spring. The Norwegian municipality Lunner has a lily of the valley in its coat-of-arms.
All parts of the plant are highly poisonous, including the red berries which may be attractive to children. If ingested—even in small amounts—the plant can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, and a reduced heart rate.
Roughly 38 different cardiac glycosides (cardenolides) have been found in the plant, some among others:
The plant also contains saponins. Although deadly, the plant has been used as a folk remedy in moderate amounts, and is currently used by herbalists as a restricted herbal remedy. It also contains the unusual, poisonous amino acid azetidine-2-carboxylic acid.
1 May, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter
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