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.