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.
Common Questions and Answers About Lily of the Valley
by Erin Marissa Russell
Can lily of the valley kill you?
All parts of lily of the valley are poisonous and severe poisoning cases can cause death, especially to children or pets, though fatality is possible in adults. Ingestion of an amount as small as two leaves can be fatal to children or pets. Lily of the valley is poisonous because it contains cardiac glycosides, which inhibit the heart’s ability to pump. Consumption can cause blurred vision, gastric distress, heart arrhythmia, slow or irregular pulse, seizures, vomiting, or death. If ingested, call 911, the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222, or ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Hotline at 888-426-4435.
Can you grow lily of the valley in pots?
Yes, you can grow lily of the valley in containers indoors or outdoors in their USDA growing zones, 3 through 8. Growing lily of the valley in containers can help control the spread that makes some gardeners hesitant to cultivate it. Lily of the valley has long root systems, so use a container that is deeper than it is wide that has drainage holes. Plant rhizomes one or two inches apart in a standard potting mix, covering the tops of the rhizome buds with soil. Find a location for the container that gets bright, indirect sunlight where the temperature stays around 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on your climate, you may need to bring the container indoors from fall to spring to keep your lily of the valley alive.
Can you grow lily of the valley indoors?
Yes, lily of the valley can be grown indoors as long as its needs are met. Grow in a container deeper than it is wide to accommodate the plant’s long roots. Containers should also have drainage holes. Cover rhizomes up to the buds with a standard potting mix, and find a place for the pot that gets bright indirect sunlight. The room where you grow lily of the valley should stay between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Depending on the climate where you live, you may need to bring lily of the valley indoors from fall to spring.
Can you root lily of the valley?
You create new lily of the valley plants by division instead of rooting a cutting. Divide lily of the valley during the plant’s dormancy period in spring or fall, four to six weeks before the first expected freeze in your area. Water plants a day or two before dividing. Trim tall foliage down to five or six inches. Then dig up the rhizomes, also called pips, and separate them with a clean, sterilized spade or other gardening tool. You may need to cut through tangled roots. Dig about six to eight inches around the plant to avoid harming the bulbs. Discard any rhizomes that are slimy, discolored, or otherwise appear unhealthy. Plant immediately in a spot that gets partial shade where the soil has been amended with compost, spacing to allow four or five inches between each rhizome. If you plant a whole clump, provide one or two feet of space around it. Water newly planted lily of the valley until the area is evenly moist but not waterlogged.
Do deer eat lily of the valley plants?
Deer avoid eating lily of the valley since the plants are poisonous.
Do lily of the valley like sun or shade?
The best place to plant lily of the valley is one that gets partial shade. However, the plants can be adapted to tolerate full sun or shade if their water intake is adjusted.
Do lily of the valley plants spread?
Yes, lily of the valley is invasive and will spread if measures are not taken to control it.
Do slugs eat lily of the valley?
Both snails and slugs eat lily of the valley, chewing ragged holes in its leaves. For more information, check out our article on Slug and Snail Pest Control.
How big does lily of the valley get?
Lily of the valley plants grow between six inches and one foot tall.
How deep do I plant lily of the valley?
Plant lily of the valley rhizomes, or pips, with the soil covering the buds at the top.
How do I get rid of the lily of the valley in my garden?
Dig up the visible plant and as many of its underground rhizomes as you can find, and dispose of them properly. Use a rake or your fingers to comb through soil for broken or partial rhizome pieces left behind, and dispose of those as well. Cover the ground where lily of the valley was growing with cardboard or layers of newspaper, and weight it down with cinder blocks, bricks, or other heavy objects. Leave this layer for the rest of the growing season or at least six months.
How do you fertilize lily of the valley?
Use a slow release granular fertilizer in a 10-10-10 blend, and apply according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
How do you transplant lily of the valley?
Divide lily of the valley when the plant is dormant in spring or fall. Dig about six inches around the plant to avoid harming the underground rhizomes. Lift the clumps out of the dirt and divide into several sections, then plant each section in its new location, giving four or five inches of space. If you plant a whole clump instead of separated rhizomes, give one or two feet of space. Bury rhizomes deep enough to cover the buds, then water well enough that soil is evenly moist but not overly wet.
How do you winterize lily of the valley?
Cut back any foliage that is dead or diseased, then add a one-inch layer of compost or aged manure over the top of the plants. This layer will fertilize the soil for the next season as well as protecting the plants from the cold.
How far apart do you plant lily of the valley?
If planting individual rhizomes or young plants, give five or six inches of space on all sides. If planting an entire clump of rhizomes, give one or two feet of space on all sides.
How long does it take for lily of the valley to spread?
Lily of the valley spreads quickly and has been known to double its spread each year.
How long do lily of the valley bloom?
Lily of the valley plants bloom for three or four weeks beginning in mid-spring. If grown indoors, it can bloom out of season.
How often do lily of the valley bloom?
Lily of the valley growing outdoors bloom for a three- to four-week period each spring. Growing indoors, they can bloom out of season.
How often do you water lily of the valley?
Whenever the soil lily of the valley is planted in dries out to one or two inches below the surface, provide it with one inch of water. You can check the moisture level of the soil by simply sticking your finger into the dirt. If soil clings to your skin, it is still moist.
Is it OK to touch lily of the valley?
All parts of the lily of the valley plant are poisonous if consumed, but it is not harmful when touched.
Is lily of the valley poisonous to humans, dogs, or cats?
Lily of the valley is severely poisonous to humans as well as pets. Ingesting an amount as small as two leaves can cause death in children or pets, though eating enough can be fatal to adults as well. The cardiac glycosides in the plant make it poisonous by inhibiting the heart’s ability to pump. Consuming lily of the valley can cause blurry vision, gastric distress, heart arrhythmia, slow or irregular pulse, seizures, vomiting, or death. If ingested, call 911, the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222, or ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Hotline at 888-426-4435.
Should I deadhead lily of the valley?
Deadhead lily of the valley by trimming off the fading blooms from the stem when they begin to wilt to keep plants looking neat and encourage blooming.
What conditions does lily of the valley like?
Lily of the valley likes partial shade, though with adjustments to its watering, it can tolerate full shade to full sun. It prefers moist, well-draining soil and should get one inch of water when the top inch or two of soil has dried out. Feed lily of the valley with a 10-10-10 fertilizer according to manufacturer instructions.
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
Learn how to grow lily of the valley flowers for indoor blooms on YouTube.