Lily of the Valley

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Convallaria majalis
Scientific classification e
Species:C. majalis
Binomial name
Convallaria majalis
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Convallaria majalis
Scientific classification e
Species:C. majalis
Binomial name
Convallaria majalis

Convallaria majalis /ˌkɒnvəˈlɛəriə məˈlɨs/,[1] 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[2]). It was formerly placed in its own family Convallariaceae, and, like many lilioid monocots, before that in the lily family Liliaceae.

A limited native population occurs in Eastern USA (Convallaria majalis var. montana).[3] There is, however, some debate as to the native status of the American variety.[4]


19th-century illustration

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,[5] these upright dormant stems are often called pips.[6] 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 have six white tepals (rarely pink), fused at the base to form a bell-shape, 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.[7]


It is a plant of partial shade, and mesophile type that prefers warm summers. It likes soils that are silty or sandy and acid to moderate basic.

It is an Euroasiatic and suboceanic species that lives in mountains up to 1.500 m altitude.[8]


Convallaria majalis var. rosea

There are three varieties that have sometimes been separated out as distinct species or subspecies by some botanists.[9]

  • Convallaria majalis var. keiskei - from China and Japan, with red fruit and bowl-shaped flowers (now widely cited as Convallaria keiskei)[7][10]
  • C. majalis var. majalis - from Eurasia, with white midribs on the flowers
  • C. majalis var. montana - from the USA, with green-tinted midribs on the flowers

Convallaria transcaucasica is recognised as a distinct species by some authorities, while the species formerly called Convallaria japonica is now classified as Ophiopogon japonicus.[10]

Garden use[edit]

Variegated cultivar early in spring.
Double-flowered Convallaria majalis

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.[11] In favourable conditions it can form large colonies.

Various kinds and cultivars are grown, including those with double flowers, rose-colored flowers, variegated foliage and ones that grow larger than the typical species.[10]

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.[12]

Foodplant for insect larvae[edit]

Lily of the valley is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including the Grey Chi.

Lily of the Valley phenomenon[edit]

See also: bourgeonal

The odor of lily of the valley, specifically the ligand bourgeonal, attracts mammal sperm in a dramatic manner.[13] The 2003 discovery of this phenomenon prompted a new wave of research into odor reception,[14] but no evidence was found that the female sex organ has similar odors of any kind.

A 2012 study demonstrated instead that at high concentrations, bourgeonal imitated the role of progesterone in stimulating sperm to swim (chemotaxis), a process unrelated to odor reception.[15]

Legend and tradition[edit]

Christian legend[edit]

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[16] or from the blood shed by Saint Leonard of Noblac during his battles with a dragon.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Other names and legends[edit]

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.[citation needed]

In the "language of flowers", the lily of the valley signifies the return of happiness.[17] 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.[citation needed]

Use in weddings[edit]

Duchess of Cambridge with bridal bouquet featuring Lily of the Valley

Lily of the valley is a popular flower for weddings,[17] although it can be very expensive.[18] Lily of the Valley was featured in the bridal bouquet at the Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.[18][19] Lily of the valley was also the flower chosen by Princess Grace Kelly to be featured in her bridal bouquet.

Symbolic uses[edit]

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.

Lily of the valley was the floral emblem of Yugoslavia and it also became the national flower of Finland in 1967.


All parts of the plant are highly poisonous, including the red berries which may be attractive to children.[20] If ingested—even in small amounts—the plant can cause abdominal pain, vomiting, and a reduced heart rate.[21]

Roughly 38 different cardiac glycosides (cardenolides) have been found in the plant, some among others:

  • convallarin
  • convallamarin
  • convallatoxin
  • convallotoxoloside
  • convallosid
  • neoconvalloside
  • glucoconvalloside
  • majaloside
  • convallatoxon
  • corglycon
  • cannogenol-3-O-α-L-rhamnoside
  • cannogenol-3-O-β-D-allomethyloside
  • cannogenol-3-O-6-deoxy-β-D-allosido-β-D-glucoside,
  • cannogenol-3-O-6-deoxy-β-D-allosido-α-L-rhamnoside,
  • strophanthidin-3-O-6-deoxy-β-D-allosido-α-L-rhamnoside,
  • strophanthidin-3-O-6-deoxy-β-D-allosido-α-L-arabinoside,
  • strophanthidin-3-O-α-L-rhamnosido-2-β-D-glucoside,
  • sarmentogenin-3-O-6-deoxy-β-D-allosido-α-L-rhamnoside
  • sarmentogenin-3-O-6-deoxy-β-D-guloside
  • 19-hydroxy-sarmentogenin-3-O-α-L-rhamnoside,
  • 19-hydroxy-sarmentogenin
  • arabinosido-6-deoxyallose
  • lokundjoside

The plant also contains saponins. Although deadly, the plant has been used as a folk remedy in moderate amounts,[22] and is currently used by herbalists as a restricted herbal remedy. It also contains the unusual, poisonous amino acid azetidine-2-carboxylic acid.



  1. ^ Sunset Western Garden Book, 1995:606–607
  2. ^ Chase, M.W.; Reveal, J.L. & Fay, M.F. (2009), "A subfamilial classification for the expanded asparagalean families Amaryllidaceae, Asparagaceae and Xanthorrhoeaceae", Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 161 (2): 132–136, doi:10.1111/j.1095-8339.2009.00999.x 
  3. ^ Flora of North America : Convallaria majalis
  4. ^ Gleason, Henry A. and Cronquist, Arthur, (1991), Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York, pp. 839-40
  5. ^ Flora of China: Convallaria majalis
  6. ^ Mills, Linn; Post, Dick (2005). Nevada gardener's guide. Nashville, Tenn.: Cool Springs Press. p. 137. ISBN 1-59186-116-0. 
  7. ^ a b Ohara, Masashi; Araki, Kiwakoi; Yamada, Etsukoi; Kawano, Shoichi, Life-history monographs of Japanese plants, 6: Convallaria keiskei Miq. (Convallariaceae), Plant Species Biology, Vol 21, No 2, August 2006, pp. 119–126(8), Blackwell Publishing
  8. ^ Rameau, J. C. and others (1989). Flore Forestière Française. Institut pour le développement Forestier. p. 1023. ISBN 2-904740-16-3. 
  9. ^ "Convallaria in Flora of North America @". Retrieved 2012-04-30. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g RHS Plant Finder 2009–2010. Dorling Kindersley. 2009. pp. 195, 196. ISBN 978-1-4053-4176-9. 
  11. ^ "RHS Plant Selector Convallaria majalis AGM / RHS Gardening". Retrieved 2012-07-31. 
  12. ^ Journal of horticulture and practical gardening. 1872. p. 378. Retrieved 28 September 2010. 
  13. ^ Marc Spehr; Günter Gisselmann, Alexandra Poplawski, Jeffrey A. Riffell, Christian H. Wetzel, Richard K. Zimmer, Hanns Hatt (2003). "Identification of a Testicular Odorant Receptor Mediating Human Sperm Chemotaxis". Science 299 (5615): 2054. doi:10.1126/science.1080376. PMID 12663925. Retrieved 24 June 2012.  See also review by Donner Babcock, ScienceMag 2003 (free pdf).
  14. ^ For example ScienceDaily 2007
  15. ^ Christoph Brenker; Normann Goodwin, Ingo Weyand, Nachiket D Kashikar, Masahiro Naruse, Miriam Krähling, Astrid Müller, U Benjamin Kaupp Timo Strünker (2012). "The CatSper channel: a polymodal chemosensor in human sperm". The EMBO Journal 31 (7): 1654–1665. doi:10.1038/emboj.2012.30. Retrieved 24 June 2012.  See also ScienceMag article
  16. ^ "May Birth Flower : Birth Month Flower". 2007-06-02. Retrieved 2012-04-30. 
  17. ^ a b Wedding Traditions & Trivia
  18. ^ a b Lily of the Valley Stars in Royal Bridal Bouquet
  19. ^ Balcony kisses seal royal wedding
  20. ^ "Lily-Of-The-Valley". The New York Times. 
  21. ^ New York Media, LLC (4 June 1979). New York Magazine. New York Media, LLC. p. 92. ISSN 00287369. Retrieved 28 September 2010. 
  22. ^ Cantell, Sulo; Saarnio, Väinö, 1936. Suomen myrkylliset ja lääkekasvit (translation: The Poisonous and Medical plants of Finland, no known translated literature available)[better source needed]

External links[edit]