The waxy little flower of the Lily of the Valley is a beauty, surpassed only by its intoxicating scent. The garden was a little thin on these shy and unassuming posies, to the extent that I was unable to collect enough of them for a bouquet. They spread through rhizomes and can penetrate garden cloth to form large colonies. Shade loving they are popular garden plants in areas of little or no sunlight, but can be a bit of a nuisance, spreading into the grass and coming up between the cracks in the concrete. I’m confident they will return to their dominating selves by next year. It is a poisonous plant, particularly the bright red berries that form once the flowers are finished. It has received the Royal Horticulture Society’s Award of Merit.
The flower is also known as Our Lady’s tears or Mary’s tears from Christian legends that it sprang from the weeping of the Virgin Mary during the crucifixion of Jesus. Other etiologies its coming into being from Eve’s tears after she was driven with Adam from the Garden of Eden or from the blood shed by Saint Leonard of Noblac during his battles with a dragon.
The name “lily of the valley” is used in some English translations of the Bible in Song of Songs 2:1, but the Hebrew phrase “shoshannat-ha-amaqim” in the original text (literally “lily of the valleys“) doesn’t refer to this plant. It’s possible, though, that the biblical phrase may have had something to do with the origin or development of the modern plant-name.
It is a symbol of humility in religious painting. Lily of the valley is considered the sign of Christ’s second coming. The power of humanity to envision a better world was also attributed to the lily of the valley.
Lily of the valley was the floral emblem of Yugoslavia and it also became the national flower of Finland in 1967.
To the curious eye
A little monitor presents her page
Of choice instruction, with her snowy bells,
The lily of the vale. She nor affects
The public walk, nor gaze of mid-day sun:
She to no state or dignity aspires,
But silent and alone puts on her suit,
And sheds a lasting perfume, but for which
We had not known there was a thing so sweet
Hid in the gloomy shade. So, when the blast
Her sister tribes confounds, and to the earth
Stoops their high heads that vainly were exposed,
She feels it not but flourishes anew,
Still shelter’d and secure. And as the storm,
That makes the high elm couch, and rends the oak,
The humble lily spares, — a thousand blows
That shake the lofty monarch on his throne,
We lesser folk feel not. Keen are the pains
Advancement often brings. To be secure,
Be humble; to be happy, be content.
James Hurdis 1763-1803
The First Day of May 1851
Artist: Franz Xaver Winterhalter 1805-1873
The Duke of Wellington offering a gift to Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Prince Arthur, in a scene resembling the Adoration of the Magi. The painting was commissioned by Queen Victoria to commemorate the 1st of May 1851, which held a threefold significance: it was the first birthday of Prince Arthur, the eighty-second birthday of prince’s godfather the Duke of Wellington, and the opening day of the Great Exhibition. Prince Arthur holds Lily-of-the-valley, a traditional 1st of May gift said to bring good luck. The Crystal Palace can be seen in the background.
Medium oil on canvas Height: 107 cm (42.1 in) Width: 130 cm (51.2 in) Royal Collection – London