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Lily of the Valley Newsletter

No flower amid the garden fairer grows
Than the sweet lily of the lowly vale,
The queen of flowers. --Keats

The enjoyment one gets out of growing fragrant plants is immense. Watching their different physical characteristics develop during the season before, during and after bloom is a delight, for each type of plant has Lily of the Valleyits own personality and unique beauty. During my horticultural career I have had the opportunity to be around many such living fragrant plants and have loved watching them grow and send forth their lovely aromas into the air surrounding where they live. Each such botanical gem has its own story to tell both in the immediate sense of the garden in which it is growing as well as the larger story of the role it has played in the lives of humans in many other times and places.

Lily-of-the-valley, a diminutive little cream- or pink- tinged, bell-shaped flower, enjoys the refuge of shady locations in the garden. It is not one of those flowers that grabs your attention, but rather one needs to bend close to it to perceive its delicate beauty and inhale its elegant rich perfume. In it is one of those plants that when it finds a home it likes, will thrive with relatively little care and produce an abundance of small stemmed flowers from year to year but if it does not find the environment to its liking, will quickly disappear.

Hundreds of years ago this plant was loved and admired in European countries where it was found growing abundantly in cool temperature woodland environments. In that simpler time the flowers found in field and forest exerted a powerful influence on the lives of the people that lived in their vicinity. Rich symbolic associations arose in relationship to them and often beautiful legends and stories came into being with flowers such as lily of the valley as their main theme. Furthermore many plants possessed medicinal virtues and the telling of stories related to them in the form of myths and legends were to inculcate in the heart of the listener a reverence and respect for them.

In Christian tradition a number of names were given to Lily-of the-valley including such as Mary's Tears and Our Lady's Tears as it was believed that the flowers came into existence when Mary wept at the crucifixion of Jesus. It was also believed among some people that the Lily of the Valley came into existence when Saint Leonard of Noblac bled as he battled with dragons. Symbolically Lily of the Valley embodied the quality of humility and often was used in religious paintings to connote this quality. It also was given other charming names in different countries such as May Lily, Ladder to Heaven, May Bells, Muguet, etc.

The sweetness and charm of Lily-of-the-valley is elegantly captured in one of my favorite books, The Scented Garden by Elanour Sinclair Rodhe:

"The lily-of-the-valley is, I think, the very first of the flowers whose scent is a true summer scent, for the May lily, as our ancestors called it, never flowers till the bitter winds we so often get in late spring are over. When the lily of the valley flowers we know in truth that summer has come:

'The hills tell each other, and the listening
Valleys hear ; all our longing eyes are turned
Up to thy bright pavilions ; issue forth,
And let thy holy feet visit our clime !' "

"Only in shade is it possible to see lilies of the valley in their beauty, with the softened light shining through their leaves on to the bells, hung like ' fairy lamps of snow.' In the shade of the woodlands so exquisite is this light that it seems as though the leaves were fashioned of the softest and richest velvet. Small wonder that to Keats, with his deep love of mysterious colours, the 'sweet lily of the lowly  vale' was 'the queen of flowers.' Is any other flower set in such an exquisite aura of radiant yet hushed light ?"

"Lilies-of-the-valley figure exquisitely in the magnificent 'Adoration of the Mystic Lamb'  by the van Eycks. The Mother of Our Lord is depicted with a crown of rubies, sapphires and pearls set in gold. The rubies alternate with the sapphires, the former being square-cut and surrounded with pearls. Above each ruby are set two columbines surmounted by a Madonna lily, and above each sapphire are roses surmounted by three stalks of lilies of the valley. Around her head, seen as through a cloud, are twelve stars. The Madonna lilies denote her purity, the roses the divine love which sent Our Lord to this earth, the columbines the seven gifts of the Holy- Spirit, and the lilies-of-the-valley the humility of * the handmaid of the Lord."

"The lily-of-the-valley grows Madonnawild almost throughout Europe from Italy to Lapland. According to a Sussex legend, they grew first in St. Leonard's forest, where the Saint encountered and vanquished the dragons or * fire drakes,' which devastated that part of the country. When this lowly flower was first made a garden flower we do not know, but Thomas Hyll, the author of the earliest book on gardening in our language, tells us (in 1568) that they had recently been ' bought and planted in gardens.' ' The wood Lillie or Lillie of the valley,' he says, ' is a flower mervallous sweete, florishing especially in the spring time, and growing properly in woods, but chiefly in valleies and on the sides of hilles. But now for the great commoditie and use known (of the floure) the same of late yeares is bought and planted in gardens.' The pink-flowered variety, which was known in Parkinson's day, was apparently and fortunately as rarely seen then as it is now. In the Paradisus he says of it that ' it groweth only in the Gardens of those that are curious lovers of rarities.' The flowers were formerly used in many ways. Distilled in wine they were accounted in Gerard's time, more precious than gold.' Parkinson says, ' The flowers of the white kind are used with those things that help to
strengthen the memory and to procure ease to Apoplectic persons. Camerarius setteth down the manner of making an oyle of the flowers hereof, which he saith is very effectuall to ease the paines of the Goute, and such-like diseases, to be used outwardly, which is thus : 'Having filled a glasse with the flowers, and being well stopped, set it for a moneth's space in an Ants hill, and after, being drayned cleare, set it by to use.' "

Reading such lovely descriptions from old accounts of the role of flowers in the lives of the people one feels a warm glow in the heart. There is much to be said in considering the world around us as alive and full of meaning if the sense of wonder and awe is kindled in the heart.

Bishop Mant, in the Lily-of-the-Valley, expresses
very delicately the beauties of this little flower :

"Fair flow'r, that, lapt in lowly glade.
Dost hide beneath the greenwood shade.
Than whom the vernal gale
None fairer wakes, on bank, or spray,
Old England's lily of the may,
Our lily of the vale."

The aroma of the Lily of the valley is one that has captivated perfumers for several hundred years. In reading through Steffen Arctander's masterful work-Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin-it seems that very little if any authentic Lily of the Valley Absolute was ever extracted. Some attempts were made at Lily of the Valley enfluerage in Grasse in the golden age of the perfume industry there(in the late part of the 1800's through the1920's) but the general Lily of the Valleypractice seemed to be to extract the entire inflorescence of the the flower at one time(the individual florets open at different times and the picking off of each as they matured was considered to labor intensive even at that time) The result was that the enfluerage product had powerful green notes in it that overpowered the delicate floral notes of the flowers. It was also discovered that the cultivated Lily of the Valley were less fragrant than those growing in the wild.

In the modern times, the production of a genuine Lily-of-the-valley absolute is out of the question. The flowers are very tiny and the people power required to harvest the crop would be huge. The numbers of flowers required to make 1 kilo(35 ounces) would number in the hundreds of thousands and would require several tons at the least as the amount of volatile oil in them is minute. It is just to say that the question of producing a genuine material, if it was difficult 100 years ago, has now become virtually impossible.

Still this particular aroma was at one time highly valued because of the emotional impact the flowers produced on those smelling them. As the aroma of the flower was investigated by various means, many of its major components were identified and synthesized so that it became relatively easy to produce some semblance of the flowers fragrance in the lab. Looking through some of the literature on the subject and coupling it with my own experiences of smelling the living flower, I thought it would be a delight to try to capture something of the beauty of this charming flower's aroma using all natural materials. Some of the essential oils and absolutes that had been traditionally used to recreate its aroma were frankincense eo and abs, styrax eo and resinoid, balsam tolu eo and abs, vanilla absolute, cardamon eo; neroli eo, ylang eo, violet leaf abs; rose eo and abs, orange blossom abs, coriander eo etc. In subsequent years a number of other natural aromatics have appeared which can be used in Lily-of-the-valley creations. These include Magnolia Lily CO2, Champa, White Flower and Leaf CO2 and EO, Genda(Tagetes minuta) Attar etc.

In making ones own perfume much depends on how the flower of the living plant, the environment in which it is growing, etc impact ones consciousness. There is much scope for creative work in the creation of natural perfumes that are determined by ones knowledge of the materials they have access too and their own experience of the world around them.

To my nose the flower displayed a warm, soft, powdery, sweet floral odor, with green, honeyed undertones with just a hint of a roseaceos-citrus accord. On one level its odor is very simple and elegant but on carefully smelling the aroma of the flowers the components which make up its simplicity are very complex. Smelling the flowers has a very soothing and softening effect on the heart and mind opening up quiet vistas of gentle beauty and sweetness.

Lily of the Valley Perfume recipe

1/2 oz. Ylang Complete EO
1 oz. Bergamot EO
1/8 oz. Rose Otto/Ruh Gulab
1/2 oz. Jasmin grandiflorum Abs
1 oz. Magnolia Lily CO2 Select
2 oz. Cabreuva EO
1 oz. White Champa Leaf EO
1/4 oz. Shamama Attar
1/4 oz. White Champa Flower CO2 1/16th oz. Galbanum EO
1/4 oz. Genda Attar
1/4 oz. Mukhallat Attar

To my nose the flower displayed a warm, soft, powdery, sweet floral odor, with green, honeyed undertones with just a hint of a roseaceos-citrus accord. On one level its odor is very simple and elegant but on carefully smelling the aroma of the flowers the components which make up its simplicity are very complex. Smelling the flowers has a very soothing and softening effect on the heart and mind opening up quiet vistas of gentle beauty and sweetness.


Links for Lily-of-the-valley

Birth Flower for May

Meaning and Legends of Flowers

Herbal uses of Lily of the Valley

Flower Lore and Legends-Katherine Beals

Weeds and Wildflowers: their uses, legends and literature
by Caroline Catharine Wilkinson

Lily-of-valley in Literature

"Brother Benedict’s soul had long departed, when in times of turbulence and change the monastery was destroyed, and between fire and plunder and reckless destruction everything perished, and even the garden was laid waste. But no one touched the Lilies of the Valley in the copse below, for they were so common that they were looked upon as weeds. And though nothing remained of the brotherhood but old tales, these lingered, and were handed on; and when the children played with the lilies and bickered over them, crying, “My ladder has twelve white angels and yours has only eight,” they would often call them Brother Benedict’s flowers, adding, “but the real right name of them is Ladders to Heaven.”

--from Mary’s Meadow & Other Tales of Fields & Flowers
by Juliana Horatia Ewing

"It was the spirit of the garden that crept into my boy-heart and left its fragrance, to endure through the years. What the garden stood for - what it expressed - left a mysterious but certain impress. Grandmother's touch hallowed it and made it a thing apart, and the rare soul of her seemed to be reflected in the Lilies of the Valley that bloomed sweetly year by year in the shady plot under her favorite window in the sitting-room. Because the garden was her special province, it expressed her own sturdy, kindly nature. Little wonder, then, that we cherished it; that I loved to roam idly there feeling the enfoldment of that same protection and loving-kindness which drew me to the shelter of her gingham-aproned lap when the griefs of Boyhood pressed too hard upon me; and that we walked in it so contentedly in the cool of the evening, after the Four O'clocks had folded their purple petals for the night."

--from The Long Ago
by Jacob William Wright


"I had been familiar with Ardalion Mikhailich's wood from my childhood.  I had often strolled in Chapligino with my French tutor, Monsieur Désiré Fleury, the kindest of men (who had, however, almost ruined my constitution for life by dosing me with Leroy's mixture every evening). The whole wood consisted of some two or three hundred immense oaks and ash-trees. Their stately, powerful trunks were magnificently black against the transparent golden green of the nut bushes and mountain ashes; higher up, their wide knotted branches stood out in graceful lines against the clear blue sky, unfolding into a tent overhead; hawks, honey-buzzards and kestrels flew whizzing under the motionless tree-tops; variegated woodpeckers tapped loudly on the stout bark; the blackbird's bell-like trill was heard suddenly in the thick foliage, following on the ever-changing note of the goldhammer; in the bushes below was the chirp and twitter of hedge-warblers, siskins, and peewits; finches ran swiftly along the paths; a hare would steal along the edge of the wood, halting cautiously as he ran; a squirrel would hop sporting from tree to tree, then suddenly sit still, with its tail over its head. In the grass among the high ant-hills under the delicate shade of the lovely, feathery, deep-indented ferns, were violets and lilies of the valley, and funguses, russet, yellow, brown, red and crimson; in the patches of grass among the spreading bushes red strawberries were to be found. . . . And oh, the shade in the wood! In the most stifling heat, at midday, it was like night in the wood: such peace, such fragrance, such freshness. . . . I had spent happy times in Chapligino, and so, I must own, it was with melancholy feelings I entered the wood I knew so well. The ruinous, snowless winter of 1840 had not spared my old friends, the oaks and the ashes; withered, naked, covered here and there with sickly foliage, they struggled mournfully up above the young growth which "took their place, but could never replace them."

--from A Hunter's Sketches (Zapiski okhotnika)
by Ivan Turgenev

"Tear up the chicory, lambs' tongue
clover, dandelion, grass,
those humble gifts that winter brought:
here's a new floribunda rose.

Over loam, spread carpets
of cocoa shells --
the chocolate scent will rise
with aromas
of the roses,
peonies, violets,
lilies of the valley
so all the senses
of delight surround,

and all above, around,
beneath us, beetles, worms,
bees, aphids, butterflies
eat the earth alive."

'Garden Work'
by Jean Bower


"I have never been greedy for money, I have never wanted to be rich, but I felt now an immense sense of impending deprivation. I read the newspapers after breakfast—I and my aunt together—and then I walked up to see what Cothope had done in the matter of Lord Roberts B. Never before had I appreciated so acutely the ample brightness of the Lady Grove gardens, the dignity and wide peace of all about me. It was one of those warm mornings in late May that have won all the glory of summer without losing the gay delicacy of spring. The shrubbery was bright with laburnum and lilac, the beds swarmed with daffodils and narcissi and with lilies of the valley in the shade."

--from Tono-Bungay
Book the Fourth,
Chapter the First,
"The Stick of the Rocket"
by H.G. Wells

"This is what I would once have called an epoch in my life," said Anne, as she took Roy's violets out of their box and gazed at them thoughtfully. She meant to carry them, of course, but her eyes wandered to another box on her table. It was filled with lilies-of-the-valley, as fresh and fragrant as those which bloomed in the Green Gables yard when June came to Avonlea. Gilbert Blythe's card lay beside it."

--from Anne of the Island
by Lucy Maud Montgomery