LILY OF THE VALLEY ON THE FIRST OF MAY

GRACE KELLY, PARIS IN THE SPRING TIME AND THE “WORST OF ALL DELICIOUS” WEEDS

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Convallaria majalis var. rosea after the rain

On the wooden table outside our kitchen door I have a terracotta pot of the most elegant pink lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis var. rosea.  The pot was given to me as a precious container of newly planted bulbs by my friend the painter, Charlotte Verity .  The gift was important as it was a memento of an extraordinary year Charlotte spent as Artist in Residence at The Garden Museum in London in 2010.  Here in the shadow of the ruddy castellated walls of neighbouring Lambeth Palace, Charlotte spent a year painting in Tradescant’s Garden – the knot garden created in 1981 by the Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury around the important tomb of the Seventeenth Century plant hunters.

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Lily of the Valley 2009 – Charlotte Verity

Here amongst the formal framework of box with its spring halo of brilliant green, Charlotte’s observation of the garden’s plants was intimate and exquisite:

‘The medlar tree painting is taking a long time, the paint thickening and in danger of losing light.   Trying to get the direction of the branches the way they step back and forth, the silvery bark shining in the light and dark in the shadows” (extract from the wonderful diary she kept through the year and published by the Garden Museum).

I love the love lush fullness of her 2009 painting of white lily of the valley – in which the leaves almost battle for position.   Early twentieth Century plant hunter, Reginald Farrer describes lily of the valley as “the worst of all delicious weeds when it thrives” because of its  sometimes rampant tendency.  But as Beth Chatto writes in her nursery catalogue, conditions are not always easy to achieve and if one has “humus rich soil, among shrubs perhaps, where there is room for the wandering rhizomes … who would not plant lily of the valley for its heady scent in May and June and the chance to pick handfuls for the house”.

One of my favourite examples of the way lily of the valley can be grown to exploit this energetic tendency is the regimented mass of them in the walled kitchen gardens at West Dean College and Gardens in Sussex. Here amidst the covetable order of fruit tunnels, lined out vegetables and the ultimate gothic-gated apple house, lily of the valley grows in impressively deft order at the base of a beautiful flint wall.

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The Apple Store in the Walled Kitchen Garden at West Dean

Lily of valley west deanLily of the Valley at the base of a flint wall at West Dean

Charlotte’s painting of the pink lily of the valley she encountered in the Tradescant Garden at the Garden Museum is one of my favourites.  I love the way she has captured the spare, framing curve of the strong leaves which form an arch around the pale, silvery pink of the flowers, and I am moved by the clarity of colour given to the Convallaria against the deep earthiness of the background.  
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Convallaria Rosea 2010 – Charlotte Verity

If you should have a problem with over zealous species lily of the valley, choosing this less vigourous pink form or one of the Saville-Row-handsome variegated forms would be a rewarding move for a shady spot in your garden:

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Convallaria majalis var rosea – a present from Charlotte in September 2013

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Convallaria majalis ‘Variagata’

If you opt for the variegated route it is important to source your plants from a really good nursery. Beth Chatto is open about the trouble her nursery has had in the past with the handsome leaves of variegated lilies of the valley often reverting to plain green in a ‘disappointingly short time’.  The nursery now offers the seemingly steadfast  Convallaria majalis ‘Albostriata’ when it is available.

One of the really helpful characteristics of lily of the valley is that the foliage dies back after blooming which makes it a perfect subject for Great Dixter style intensive successional planting.  There is an excellent article by Gareth Richards about lily of the valley in the April 2014 edition of the RHS Garden Magazine.  Here, National Plant Collection holder, Brigitte Haugh recommends a rather brilliant sequence of snowdrops, followed by lily of the valley, followed by Turk’s cap lilies.  All three thrive in similar conditions and yet only one will be present in the same spot at any one time.

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Today, in France it is La Fête de Muguet or Lily of the Valley Day.  It is a national holiday (also Labour Day!) with a sweet tradition of giving fragrant bunches of lily of the valley to family and friends. This symbolic gift of flowers is said to date back to 1560 when King Charles IX was given a posy on the first of May as a token of good luck and prosperity for the coming year.  It became an annual tradition for the King to give members of his Court lily of the valley on May Day –  a tradition revived in around 1900, first as a romantic present and now a ubiquitous part of the holiday.

I remember seeing cellophane wrapped cones of rather giant lily of the valley on sale EVERYWHERE in Paris, (garages, department stores, pavements), when I spent a rather idyllic few months studying History of Art at the Sorbonne in my Gap Year.  It turns out rather satisfyingly that there is a particularly favoured chunky variety called ‘Géant de Fortins’. Despite the rather over commercialised reality of today’s version of the tradition there is a lingering fragrant romance to the very idea.

It is tied up with the freshness and the scent and all our romantic notions of Paris in the spring.  When the perfect Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in late April 1956 she carried a demure, bouquet of tiny pearl-like lily of the valley and our hearts have been irrevocably caught ever since:

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My own parents got married three years later during a very snowy January in Wales.  My mother is famous for worrying most that her cream satin dress would ‘look dirty’ against the white of the snow.  But she looked beautiful, of course, and I will always treasure this photograph with her own simple bouquet of lily of the valley nestling near the wedding cake.M&DI am about to plant my delicate pale pink lily of the valley in the ground and hope they will multiply with unseemly vigour.  Happy May 1st!

8 thoughts on “LILY OF THE VALLEY ON THE FIRST OF MAY

  1. Deborah Thomas

    Delightful tale and wedding photographs. Am also a huge Charlotte Verity fan and cherish a painting of her’s bought from the Ann Berthould gallery in Clifford Street where I worked from an office below.

    Reply
    1. nonmorris Post author

      Thank you, Deborah! Yes, Charlotte’s careful, delighted way of looking at the details and character of plants and light and colour is uplifting and inspiring.

      Reply
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  3. kellogs64

    Hi Non, it was lovely to meet you today. I’ve enjoyed reading the Lily of the Valley piece – I especially enjoyed the way you have wove in various little cameos featuring the flower – not just from a gardening perspective. I look forward to reading more – I’m now following you! Have a wonderful weekend. Kellie

    Reply
    1. nonmorris Post author

      Hi Kellie really good to meet you too at Wisley on Friday. Thank you so much for your kind words – am so glad you enjoyed my Lily of the Valley post. A new post by midweek. Let’s keep in touch. Very best wishes, Non

      Reply
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