A plant with a mind of its own

As you garden more and get experience you get to realise that plants have personalities. All those cheerful bedding plants that fill our pots with summer colour are like puppies; all wagging tails, panting tongues and eager to please. Peonies are like your favourite gran, long-lived, reliable and huggable. But lily-of-the-valley is like that estranged old aunt that you don’t visit very often. I think of it as a bit of a Miss Havisham, all lace, cobwebs and bitterness (if she wore perfume it would be Yardley Lily-of-the-valley) and seducing the gardener with delicate, fragrant white bells and then snatching them away to make you cry.

I can usually give advice on how to grow plants but lily-of-the-valley confounds me. And I am not alone. I recently had the question ”For many years I have had a good display of lily of the valley but for the last couple of years the plants have declined and in places totally disappeared. What is the cause?’

Although botanists can’t quite settle on the name, there is basically one species, Convallaria majalis. It has been cultivated in gardens for centuries and is found wild throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It is a creeping perennial that should do best in part shade and in acid, neutral or slightly alkaline soils. Most references state that it needs a soil with plenty of organic matter and benefits from a regular mulch. But my experiences of it are mixed and confusing.

In my grandparents garden it grew in beds of dry, sandy soil, hemmed in by concrete paths and baked in summer. It was so thick that it suppressed weeds. It was how anyone would like it to be. Sometimes it runs around and pops up here and there and never makes dense groundcover. In my parents garden, on grey, thick clay over chalk, where hydrangeas turned yellow and slowly died, it grew quite well but never made such a thick cover. It grew among Spanish bluebells and London pride, untroubled by the boiler ash that was tossed on it throughout winter. Hardly ideal conditions but it was unfazed. I introduced the pink form and that did well though it ran and came up randomly in a border under an old beech tree.

Here, I have planted two batches, over two years, and it is not at all happy. The bed has been well prepared with lots of organic matter, is in part shade and it has omphalodes, hostas and hamamelis for neighbours but I get fewer pairs of leaves each year. It is too lovely a plant to give up on so I will try again, in different places and eventually I will find just the right spot.

There are many forms of the plant apart from the ‘usual’ with green leaves and white flowers. ‘Rosea’ has pretty, but rather dull, pink flowers and is not really more beautiful than the original. There are forms with larger flowers and one with doubled blooms and a host of cvs with variegated leaves. All are interesting but until I can get the common kind (well ‘Berlin Giant’) to settle in the garden here I will hold off getting expensive, fancy kinds. Well, I must be honest and I do have a pot with a variegated sort in it but I am scared to plant it out – probably foolish since it will probably be better in the ground! It is ridiculous that this is a weed for some people but it is causing me worry!

All parts of this plant are poisonous, especially the orange/red berries. Not that I have to worry yet.

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8 Comments on “A plant with a mind of its own”

  1. tonytomeo
    December 18, 2022 at 4:52 pm #

    Those who are familiar with lily of the valley here consider it to be somewhat invasive and difficult to eradicate. However, I have never been able to grow it in the Santa Clara Valley. I have tried relocating weedy rhizomes from coastal gardens where it is unwanted to my inland garden in town, but with the same dismal results. It simply does not survive. Bletilla striata does about the same; it can be weedy on the coast, but barely survives inland.

    • thebikinggardener
      December 19, 2022 at 8:30 am #

      I can’t imagine it would ever be considered invasive here – though I suppose it has the potential to. For some reason it is always expensive to buy as potted plants or bare-root ‘pips’ so if I ever had it in excess I am sure I could make a fortune. Bletilla is another that I would love to have as a weed but it is not that hardy here.

      • tonytomeo
        December 20, 2022 at 3:47 am #

        I worked for a cut flower grower in the mid 1980s who grew this only in minor quantities. It is also very expensive as a cut flower because it takes quite a bit of effort to promote ‘relatively’ long stems. Long stems are only a few inches long, but they are longer than how they bloom naturally. I do like them regardless of how they bloom.

        • thebikinggardener
          December 20, 2022 at 8:38 am #

          Yes – not as easy to grow as cut flower as chrysanths or gladioli and a long term investment too.

          • tonytomeo
            December 21, 2022 at 6:54 am #

            I distinctly remember though that those who wanted it REALLY wanted it, and did not mind paying for it.

  2. Paddy Tobin
    December 18, 2022 at 9:21 pm #

    ‘Rosea’ is a very weak performer here but the ordinary one romps around – in the veg patch under blackcurrants and has spread across a path into another bed so had to be dumped regularly.

  3. zumayonow
    January 21, 2023 at 3:46 am #

    I have found Lily to be merciless in taking over the garden. Be careful what you wish for.

    • thebikinggardener
      January 22, 2023 at 11:54 am #

      mine is still struggling to settle in and I know I could regret saying it but I wish it would try to be invasive

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