Last month I read in Brides magazine that a small bouquet of lily of the valley - the ‘ultimate wedding flower when it comes to the traditional bride’ - typically costs $500 while larger bouquets can be as much as a jaw-dropping $1200. Then I walked to our local shop to find bunches of four stems with a few leaves going for $4.99. I'm rethinking my plans to dig out the sixteen-foot-long front flower bed that has been colonized by this pretty little thug. I obviously have a small fortune sitting out there.
When we moved from Spain and bought this house in Victoria late last year, we were told there would be some wonderful surprises for us in the garden. And there have been - the fabulous roses, the swathes of Anemone nemerosa, the gorgeous Clematis montana. There have also been moments when I have stood aghast at what has popped up: the ivy growing through every bed, the gaudy masses of red and yellow striped tulips, the old 'Nelly Moser' that looks grimly determined to resist eviction. That's the thing about inheriting a garden: not everything is immediately visible. At least you can get a survey done on the house. But no one will warn you about that sixteen-foot long bed of lily of the valley.
As everyone knows who has planted Convallaria majalis, this plant with lovely perfume and dainty bells has a dark side. Not only is it highly toxic, but, if conditions suit, it is also one of the most invasive of all plants and nearly impossible to eliminate. It spreads with underground rhizomes and - dig it out, smother it, whatever - it will gleefully re-sprout from that tiniest piece of rhizome you will inevitably miss. I had to laugh at some online advice about coddling it with lots of humus and spreading leaf mold or peat moss over the bed every year in autumn.
But there are positives to the dubious gift I inherited. The deer don’t touch them for a start. In fact, they seem to scrupulously avoid it. Amongst my lily of the valley there are several quite gorgeous hostas, aka deer candy. But so far nary a nibble. I don’t think they like getting their noses in it. They didn’t hesitate to nip all the tops off the nearby campanula which had grown to a more accessible height.
And of course, the flowers are lovely and their scent is gorgeous. I gave away over forty little posies, just by leaving them in a box by the road. I think I’ll resign myself to having a lily of the valley patch. At least it’s giving the bindweed a run for its money.
Lily of the valley flowers for a good month in late spring and is sometimes called May Bells. The French give little posies of muguet de bois to celebrate the first of May. Inspired by this tradition, since 1908 Guerlain has released a limited-edition bottle of Muguet on the same date. If you’re feeling flush, you can still get one of this year’s 5000 numbered pieces: 4.9 ounces of eau de toilette for 650 USD. Well, it is a pretty bottle. Don’t think it would be easy to make your own on the cheap. Lily of the valley releases no essential oil and the base for all muguet perfumes is a complex mixture of aroma chemicals.
So, when life gives you lily of the valley, make posies. Should the need arise, you could even make your own simple bridal bouquet. Go traditional and encircle the flowers with leaves or mix them together for a more natural effect. When you see how many stems of lily of the valley are required to make one of these bouquets, the price doesn’t seem quite so shocking. On top of that, a professional bouquet – like the iconic ones carried by such brides as Grace Kelly and Kate Middleton – is a complex affair with each stem individually wired.
Less ambitiously, and in the absence of any forthcoming nuptials, a few sprigs of lily of the valley placed around a central small flower is very pretty. Tie it with a simple satin bow or raffia.
I keep a few of those miniature roses you can buy cheaply in supermarkets to raid for posies like this. There are usually three or four rose plants in one of these pots. They are easy to divide up and will thank you for the extra space by becoming bushier and more floriferous. The trick to keeping them happy in the house is not to overwater them. I wait until they are on the point of drooping, and never leave water sitting in the bottom of the pot.
Lily of the valley has a vase life of about a week, and it’s one of those flowers that easily stands alone. If you’re going to combine it with other flowers, choose ones that are similarly dainty: the traditional pairing is with forget-me-not.
Forget-me-not is often said to be prone to wilting and the advice is to cut early in the morning when only one-quarter of the flowers are open. I’ve found cutting older stems is better: they won’t wilt, last longer than the lily of the valley, and the seed heads add a bit of texture.
I took some grim delight in combining lily of the valley with the other two main thugs in my garden, both as delicate in appearance but not quite as hard to eradicate: Galium odoratum (sweet woodruff) and Vinca minor (periwinkle). I was quite surprised to find this looked good for well over a week and that the sweet woodruff lasted longest.
Lily of the valley also combines well with small-flowered clematis, and flowers around the same time as Clematis montana. The montanas aren’t nearly as good for cutting as most other clematis, and you’ll only get a few days out of them, but they are pretty while they last. Cut stems diagonally, and immediately put them in cool water. The darker buds are a bonus.
If you have a lily of the valley free garden, but would like to grow some for the house, consider potting up some pips – that is, the rhizomes. Even the rhizomes aren’t cheap to buy, but if you live near Victoria I know where you can get some for free …
Bring them on in an ordinary plastic pot outside in a shady area. Keeping them in a cold frame or cold greenhouse will make them flower sooner. When the buds start to develop, transplant into a prettier dish for the house, water well, top with a bit of moss to help keep it all moist and place out of direct sunlight. You could skip the transplanting and just put your plastic pot in a more aesthetically pleasing ceramic one. You’ll get all the pleasure of the perfume without the risk of letting lily loose in your garden.