By Julie Christensen
Native to temperate regions of Asia, Europe and North America, lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) has long been a favorite plant for shady areas. It’s hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8 and thrives in partial to full shade. In its native environment, it grows under both evergreen and deciduous trees. In the home garden, it looks lovely under shade trees or mixed with spring-blooming bulbs.
Lily of the valley spreads through underground rhizomes, forming a dense carpet of thick leaves. Atop the leaves appear dainty clusters of bell-shaped flowers in the spring. The flowers are white and sweetly fragrant.
Lily of the valley flowers are sometimes known as “Mary’s Tears,” and the story goes that the plants bloomed where the Virgin Mary’s tears dropped at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. In France, street vendors sell flower clusters of lily of the valley on May 1 to welcome spring.
Planting and Caring for Lily of the Valley
Plant lily of the valley from nursery transplants or divisions in early spring. Amend poor soils with compost, manure and peat moss. If your soil is very alkaline, add some sulfur to lower the soil pH. Space lily of the valley plants 12 inches apart and water frequently to keep the soil slightly moist. Mulch lily of the valley plants with 2 to 3 inches of wood chips.
Although lily of the valley is technically hardy to zone 8, it really prefers moist, cool climates. It thrives in the Pacific Northwest and along the East Coast. If you live in an area with warm, hot summers, plant it in full shade and keep the soil moist at all times. Even then, it may not perform well.
Fertilize lily of the valley in the spring with a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer spread at a rate of ¼ cup per 100 square feet. Divide lily of the valley every two to three years, or when growth and blooms slow.
Potential Problems and Pests
First, keep in mind that all parts of the plants are considered poisonous to both humans and pets. If ingested, the plants can cause breathing difficulties, vomiting, diarrhea, and a slow heartbeat. Avoid planting lily of the valley near play areas or where pets will have access to it.
In addition to its toxicity, the main liability of lily of the valley is its aggressiveness. In the ideal climate, it spreads vigorously and will outcompete most other perennials. Plant it by itself in a contained area under trees and allow it to spread. Dig it up annually to keep it in bounds.
Lily of the valley is fairly resistant to pests, including deer. Slugs and snails may feed on it, especially in moist soils. If slugs are a problem, pull back the mulch and allow the soil to dry out. Install slug traps and baits.
Stem rots and leaf spots sometimes afflict lily of the valley. Be sure to plant lily of the valley in well-draining soil and use drip systems, rather than overhead irrigation. Remove any diseased leaves immediately and discard them to slow the spread of disease.
Cultivars Worth Trying
- ‘Albostriata’ has interesting white-striped foliage.
- Most cultivars remain under 12 inches tall, but ‘Fortin Giant’ grows up to 15 inches tall.
- ‘Rosea’ has lovely pink flowers, rather than the classic white blooms.
For more information on lily of the valley, visit the following links:
Convallaria majalis from the Missouri Botanical Gardens
Lily of the Valley Diseases from Penn State Extension
Better Homes and Gardens covers Lily of the Valley in its plant encylcopedia.
Learn how to grow lily of the valley flowers for indoor blooms on YouTube.