In France it’s traditional to offer your nearest and dearest small sprigs of lily of the valley as a good-luck charm on May 1. This dates back to 1561 when King Charles IX was presented with a posy of these dainty scented flowers. He liked the gift so much that he decided to present lily of the valley flowers to the ladies of his court every year on the same day.
Today in the UK, bunches of lily of the valley can be alarmingly expensive to buy – even more so since the Duchess of Cambridge included them in her bridal bouquet! Your best bet is to grow them yourself, something that I’ve been trying to do for years.
For ages, lily of the valley eluded me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get it to grow. I can’t tell you how many packets of the ‘pips’ I’ve bought, carefully planted in shady spots into soil I’ve enriched with leaf mould and watered, all to no avail. Then three years ago I moved house. I didn’t know it at the time (it was the middle of winter), but in spring it became clear that the house I’d bought also came with a front garden full of lily of the valley – an unexpected bonus!
Their fresh green leaves start to emerge in mid-spring and by May they are accompanied by flower stalks of beautiful pure white bells, with that unmistakable floral scent. It’s no wonder that it has been so often emulated in perfumes and beauty products. Now I’m lucky enough to be able to go outside and pick big enough bunches to make the whole room smell of May!
I wouldn’t bother trying to start again from the pips that come in packets. They are notoriously difficult to get started. Instead, find a friend who has a vigorous patch and beg a division from them in autumn. When the plant is lifted, you’ll see its travelling underground stems and the new shoots that poke upwards. Make sure your clump has plenty of these as well as roots and it should re-establish well in your garden. Give it lots of attention while it’s getting settled and don’t let it dry out.
When it’s happy, lily of the valley does have a tendency to wander and spread, but it’s easy enough to pull out when heading for somewhere that it is not wanted.
MUST-BUY PLANT… Fritillaria
Crown imperials are beautiful plants grown from large bulbs with a ring of yellow, red or orange flowers and a topknot of foliage.
Fritillaria imperialis ‘Aureomarginata’
This variety has orange flowers, but really rings the changes with stunning variegated foliage of green with a yellow edge.
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