How to plant lily of the valley: instructions & expert tips

How to plant lily of the valley: instructions & expert tips

Lily of the valley is an easy to care for perennial for shady places. Here you can find out everything about flowering time, location and care.

Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) flowers in May, when it boasts a myriad of dainty white flowers that spread over large areas. Lily of the valley is the one and only representative of the genus Convallaria. The little bell-shaped inflorescences are symbols for purity, innocence and love and, in many countries, they bloom just in time for Mother’s Day. For this reason, in some cultures, children gift these flowers to their mothers. After all, flowers often say more than words. This is of course not all that lily of the valley offers. In the garden, the early bloomers need little care, can cope with shady places and grow abundantly without much extra help.

Lily of the valley: facts & information

Lily of the valley is a truly unique plant because it does not share its genus with any other species. Here is a small overview of the most important facts about this special plant:

  • Name: lily of the valley
  • Latin name: Convallaria majalis
  • Other common names: Mary’s tears or May bells
  • Plant family: Asparagaceae
  • Distribution area: Europe, North America
  • Age: perennial plant
  • Habitat: shade/half-shade
  • Height: 15 – 30 cm
  • Flowers: bells/ flower clusters in white; fragrant
  • Leaves: usually 2 – 3 three large, dark green leaves per plant
  • Fruits: red berries
  • Survival organ: underground rhizomes
  • Properties: winter hardy; poisonous

Lily of the valley offers no nectar, but there is a sap-rich tissue on the plant ovary that serves mainly as food for bees and other pollinators.

Lily of the valley: origin & symbolism

Lily of the valley is found almost all over Europe, especially in beech and oak forests, and has spread as far as the Caucasus. In southern Europe, the plant is usually only found in mountainous areas. Lily of the valley is also widespread in North America, but here it has been naturalised with human intervention. In the past, revered doctors were often portrayed with lilies of the valley, as they are considered a symbol of medicine. Lily of the valley is also present in the Christian symbolism. Here it is a so-called Mary’s tears, which stands for chaste love, humility and modesty of the Virgin Mary. In the language of flowers, the lily of the valley is synonymous with intimacy and love. While the green of the leaves stands for hope, the white of the flowers expresses purity.

Lily of the valley: when does it bloom?

Not only in May do lilies of the valley show their grape-like white inflorescences. The flowering time of these plants extends from March to June. During these months the plant exudes an intensely sweet smell with its flowers. For countries celebrating Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May, a bouquet of wild lily of the valley can be a lovely gift. However, it is important to note, that in some countries (especially in Europe) lilies of the valley are protected species and they cannot be picked.

Buying lily of the valley: what do you need to know?

Because of the fact that lily of the valley is a protected species, it is not possible to just find a pretty specimen in the forest, dig it up and replant it in the garden. To get your hands on this plant, visiting a garden centre, DIY store or online plant shop is therefore obligatory. The best time to buy lily of the valley is in April and May, when the offer is particularly large. As there is only one single species of lily of the valley, the focus of the plant selection is on the appearance of the single specimen. You should always choose a healthy plant with vibrant dark green leaves. Search the plant carefully for pests. It is best not to take a plant that is already flowering. After all, you want to get some of the white bell-shaped inflorescences after you plant the lily in your garden.

convallaria majalis
Due to the fact that lilies of the valley are protected species in many countries, it is safer to just buy the flowers to grow them [Shutterstock.com/mar_chm1982]

Note: You can also buy rhizome pieces from lily of the valley and use those to grow this plant in your garden.

Planting lily of the valley: when & how?

The delicate blossoms of lily of the valley form early in the season and will come back every year anew. What is more, these small and innocent-looking early bloomers are extremely low-maintenance in nature when it comes to soil or location.

When is the best time to plant lily of the valley?

Lily of the valley rhizomes should be planted in autumn or spring in the place you have chosen. Lilies of the valley in a pot should be planted out after flowering.

Where to plant lily of the valley?

These are the best conditions to grow lilies of the valley in the garden:

  • Location: half-shade to shade
  • Soil: slightly moist; rich in nutrients; sandy to loamy
  • Soil pH: alkaline to slightly acidic

Lily of the valley thrives just as well in shaded areas. However, if sunshine is too insufficient, the flowers will not bloom. At the same time, these plants do not tolerate the harsh full midday sun well. When choosing a location, consider the toxicity of lily of the valley. It is best if the plants are not accessible to children or pets. The white flowers are ideal between groups of trees or to grow as borders in shady garden beds. Especially in combination with other early bloomers such as hyacinth (Hyacinthus) or primrose (Primula), the plants enhance the garden splendidly. In addition, lily of the valley is said to promote the growth of shrubs like witch hazel (Hamamelis), forsythia (Forsythia × intermedia) or lilac (Syringa).

How to plant lily of the valley?

In the garden or pot, these early bloomers sweeten the spring with their scent and spread the hopeful message of the approaching summer. When planting lily of the valley, proceed as follows:

  • Planting distance: 10 cm (ground cover) – 20 cm
  • Planting hole: 10 cm deep
  • Mix compost with some soil
  • Place rhizomes in the planting hole with the buds facing upwards
  • Fill the planting hole with the mix of soil and compost and press lightly
  • Water the plant well

Until the plants have grown fully, they must be watered sufficiently. Of course, it is the gardener’s greatest joy when their plants are doing so well that they spread in the garden by themselves. However, lilies of the valley can become a huge nuisance and even displace other plants if their growth is left unchecked. Therefore, place a rhizome barrier around the lilies or puncture the surrounding soil regularly with a spade to destroy the creeping underground rhizomes.

Growing lily of the valley in a pot

Lily of the valley is not only something for the bed in the garden. In a pot, the delicate early bloomers decorate entrances or balconies. As a fresh table decoration, they can embellish your home and remind you of the approaching summer. You can even postpone the flowering of these pretty little plants by planting them indoors in a pot.

Lily of the valley in a pot: how does that work?

What many people don’t know is that lily of the valley can also be planted well in a pot. This also means that lilies of the valley cannot spread unhindered in the garden. Furthermore, the pre-starting of lily of the valley rhizomes can be handy. The rhizomes accumulate when older lilies of the valley are divided or can be bought online or in gardening centres. The root pieces can then be planted in a pot in November. Proceed as follows to enjoy the white flowers already in winter:

  • Pot: clay pot with hole to drain water; approx. 12 cm diameter
  • Fill the pot with some substrate
  • Planting depth: 10 cm
  • Carefully remove soil residue from the roots
  • Place the rhizome piece into the planting hole
  • Cover with substrate until the overwintering buds poke just slightly out of the soil
  • Keep the substrate moist
  • Best position: on a window sill
  • Optimal temperature: 20 °C

After flowering, the lilies of the valley can be either planted out in the garden or continued to grow in the pot indoors.

Lily of the valley in pot: the right substrate

You can use some humus-rich garden soil mixed with some organic store-bought potting soil and some sand as substrate for lilies of the valley. The substrate should always be moist, but never wet. In waterlogged conditions the rhizomes might start to rot.

Propagating lily of the valley with rhizomes

Lily of the valley multiplies incredibly fast by itself. They spread underground via rhizomes and thus form large carpets of white blossoms within a few years. If you do not want a carpet made of lily of the valley in your garden, but want to split the rhizomes and plant the new plants in a different place, proceed as follows:

  • June or July: dig up the “mother plant”
  • Remove excess soil from rhizomes
  • Cut off root pieces about 10 cm long
  • Plant the root parts individually in the location of choice

The flowers on plants grown from rhizomes form starting with year two. Alternatively, the lilies of the valley can be divided in autumn and started in a pot on the windowsill. This allows the lily of the valley to bloom in winter. After flowering, the plants can be planted out.

Propagating lily of the valley with seeds

You can also reproduce lilies of the valley by means of seeds. After pollination, small round berries are formed, which become bright red when ripe. These berries contain one to five yellow to light brown seeds. These or purchased seeds can be grown to propagate lily of the valley generatively. However, the process is much more complex than the division of the rhizomes. This is because lilies of the valley seeds require cold to germinate and must first be stratified. Moreover, plants grown from seeds flower later.

How to take care of lily of the valley: expert tips

Lily of the valley is not just a symbol of modesty. They truly are modest plants, because of their low-maintenance nature, which makes our work as hobby gardeners easier. Nevertheless, here are a few care tips so that the early bloomers can radiate their full charm.

Proper care of lilies of the valley in the garden

In the garden, lilies of the valley spread out, without you having to lift a finger, into dense white flowering carpets, which in May give the garden an innocent and playful glow. This is how you can support your leaved darlings a little bit more:

  • Fertilising: use compost or mainly organic fertiliser
  • Watering: after the plant reaches its full size no longer necessary
  • Pruning: remove inflorescences after flowering period

Lily of the valley has moderate nutritional needs. In autumn, ripe compost, manure or leaf cuttings can be used as mulch. Alternatively, organic fertiliser can be applied. Once the plant has adjusted to its new location, it only needs to be watered after prolonged periods of drought as the soil can be allowed to dry out slightly, but not completely.

Lily of the valley in a pot

Even in the pot, lilies of the valley remain low-maintenance. By using some expert tips and tricks, however, you can extend the plant’s flowering period.

lily of the valley in a pot
With adjusted care, lilies of the valley can be grown just as well in flower pots [Shutterstock.com/lermont51]
  • Fertilising: repot every two years into compost-enriched soil
  • Watering: substrate should always be moist; avoid waterlogging
  • Pruning: remove inflorescences after flowering
  • In November: apply winter protection measures; move the plant into the cellar or onto a windowsill

Do not put your lily of the valley in a place that is too warm – this will shorten the flowering period. After flowering, water only so much that the soil does not dry out completely. In addition, the potted lilies should be moved to a shady, cool place after flowering. If the lilies in the pot are not kept indoors, but outside on a balcony or a terrace, they need to be protected from cold starting in November. Cover the pot well with some bubble wrap or garden fleece to prevent the soil in the pot from freezing completely. Alternatively, the pot with the lilies of the valley can be overwintered in the cellar.

Are lilies of the valley actually poisonous?

As early as the 15th century, lily of the valley was dried and used for medicinal purposes because of its heart strengthening properties and its effectiveness for treating dizziness and eye diseases. The glycosides contained in lily of the valley are also used in traditional medicine as active ingredients. These are contained in the whole plant and make lily of the valley extremely poisonous. In excessively high doses, glycosides can lead to cardiac arrest.

Distinguishing lily of the valley from wild garlic

Even though the poisonousness of lily of the valley is not exactly a secret, poisonings occur every year. The leaves of lily of the valley are very similar to the leaves of the wild garlic (also known as bear’s garlic; Allium ursinum). Wild garlic turns forest walks into garlic-infused aromatherapy in March and April. The smell is often confused with those produced by similar plants such as bear’s garlic, lily of the valley and autumn crocus.



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