Above, from left to right: Detail of a potted lily of the valley forced for early display in Cuxa cloister; Detail of the tapestry The Queen of Sheba before King Solomon from Two Riddles of the Queen of Sheba; Lily of the valley fruiting in Bonnefont Garden in late summer.
I am the flower of the field,
And the lily of the valleys.
As the lily among thorns, so is
My love among the daughters.
—Canticle of Canticles (Song of Songs) 2:1-2
The lily and the rose are the chief adornments of the allegorical hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden of the Virgin rooted in the language of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. In medieval art, the white lily emblematic of the Virgin’s purity is the flower we now call the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum). However, particularly in medieval Germany, the northern European flower Convallaria majalis, which we know as lily of the valley, was used in its stead. Unlike other May-blooming plants of the Middle Ages, many of which were associated with sexuality and death and were sinister in their associations, lily of the valley was associated with virginity, and is still used as a bridal flower.
The phrase “the lily of the valleys” is taken from the Songs of Songs, quoted above. This Biblical poem was interpreted as a love song between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, as well as an allegory of the marriage of Israel and Yahweh; the allegory was adapted early in the history of Christianity and used to express the relationship between the Church as bride and Christ as bridegroom. The flower symbols of the canticle were extended by Saint Jerome to refer to the Virgin, and there are many medieval poems, sermons, and artworks that employ them. This use of lily of the valley as a Marian flower is not restricted to northern art, and Mirella D’Ancona-Levi cites a number of Italian Renaissance paintings of the Virgin in which Convallaria is depicted (The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting, 1977).
The species name majalis refers to the month of May. Lily of the valley is also known as May Lily, Our Lady’s Tears, and other names in English, including the delightful lirioconfancy, a corruption current in the sixteenth century. It is called muguet, lis des vallees, larmes de Ste-Mare in French; Maiblume, Mai-lili, and Lilienkonvallen in German, and mughetto, Giglio de Maggio, and Lacrime della Madonna in Italian (Bedevian, The Illustrated Polyglottic Dictionary of Plant Names, 1936.)
The English botanist William Turner, writing in the mid-sixteenth century, did not believe Convallaria majalis to grow wild in Britain, but he noted that it was a very common wildflower in Germany, and that it was called Lilium convallarium by the apothecaries of that country (Grigson, The Englishman’s Flora, 1955).
Renaissance herbals recommended it to strengthen the memory as well as the heart. A distillation of lily of the valley was called Aqua Aurea, golden water, worthy of being stored in golden vessels. According to the fifteenth-century Der Gart, lily of the valley distilled five times in an alembic and mixed with lavender and peppercorns stayed the plague. According to the Hortus Sanitatis, it eased headache and helped the heart (Anderson, German Herbals through 1500, 1984).
Lily of the valley was still listed in British pharmacopoeia in 1949 as a cardiac tonic similar in action to foxglove, although less dangerous. Maude Grieve records that it was used to treat the disturbed action of the heart induced by exposure to poison gas in soldiers in World War I. It is, however, a toxic plant containing poisonous glycosides and should not be ingested or used as an herbal remedy.
More to come on growing lily of the valley…