Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
I love telling the story of the first time that I planted lily of the valley. I carefully planted the pips in the fall before the ground froze, at the correct depth and with the correct spacing between them. Despite my best efforts, nothing came up. Three years later, they finally came up. I don’t know why they took so long to grow and I’ve never had any problems growing them since.
What is Lily of the Valley?
Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) is a perennial plant that is native to Northern Europe and Northern Asia. In the US, it is hardy in zones 3 through 8. It spreads via underground stems called rhizomes. The growing tips of the rhizomes are called pips. Lily of the valley is sold when it is dormant, rather than as live plants. What you receive are those rhizome tips or pips.
The flowers are waxy downward facing bells hanging from a stalk. There can be anywhere from 5 to 15 flowers on each stem. The flowers are usually white, but there is also a cultivar which has pink flowers. Both colors are highly fragrant. The scent is so well-liked that it is also used in perfumes. Bloom time is late spring.
Unlike spring flowering bulbs which has foliage that dies back after blooming, the foliage of lily of the valley stays green all summer. That, plus its diminutive height of eight inches and spreading habit, makes it an excellent ground cover. If you like variety, there is a cultivar which has variegated foliage with white stripes that adds interest to a shady corner of your yard.
In the fall, the plants produce colorful berries that can be orange or red. These are poisonous, so it’s best to keep small children and pets away from them. The berries contain a chemical that is related to digitalis which is found in foxglove and can cause the same cardiac symptoms and even death if enough berries are ingested.
The leaves die back in the fall and should be removed to prevent harmful insects from hibernating in the dead foliage over the winter.
Is Lily of the Valley Deer Resistant?
Yes! The entire plant is poisonous for deer so they won’t eat it. Lily of the valley is the perfect substitute in shady areas for hosta which deer love.
How to Plant Lily of the Valley
In the fall, choose a shady spot in your garden that doesn’t become too dry. Full shade is preferable, but afternoon shade will work. If the spot you choose gets sun in the morning, be sure to check it regularly to make sure that it is not drying out. Lily of the valley likes moist soil. Be sure that the area you choose is large enough for the plants to spread.
Dig a hole for each pip (rhizome) that is deep enough so that the tip of the pip is one inch below the surface of the soil. The pips should be planted 3 to 4 inches apart. Water the newly planted area regularly for the first few weeks as your pips establish their roots.
Lily of the Valley takes a few years to become established. It may not bloom at all the first year. After that, it will bloom in the late spring.
How to Divide Lily of the Valley
The easiest way to propagate lily of the valley is by division. You can divide the rhizomes in the spring before they bloom or in the fall when they are dormant. Use a garden fork to carefully dig up the rhizomes. Then gently pry them apart. Make sure that each rhizome division has its own root system. Replant the divisions four inches apart. The plants will spread quickly to fill in the empty area.
You can also divide the plants after they have finished blooming in the late spring. If you try to divide them while they are budded or actively flowering, the flowers will die. So after the plants have finished flowering, gently dig them up, pry the rhizomes apart and replant the divisions four inches apart.
No matter when you divide your plants, remember to water them well afterwards and keep them watered so that the roots can get established.
Questions & Answers
Question: Our Lily of the Valley grew beautifully for fours years. Then, this spring, it didn't bloom. It is at the back of our house, not out front. Did it die out?
Answer: I don't know where you live, but most of the US had a very cold, wet spring. My guess is that the pips that died were in an area that doesn't have good drainage, and so they rotted. If you decide to replant in that area, be sure to add some builders sand or peat moss to the soil to improve drainage.
© 2017 Caren White
Caren White (author) on October 13, 2017:
Dianna, what a wonderful memory. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Dianna Mendez on October 13, 2017:
My mother's favorite perfume was Lilly of the Valley. I can still smell the soft scent today. I enjoyed the information shared in your article.
Caren White (author) on October 05, 2017:
And don't you just love the smell? Thanks for reading and commenting.
Mary Wickison from Brazil on October 05, 2017:
I have never grown them but always loved to see them. They seem so dainty and delicate.
I didn't realize they were poisonous, it's a great protection for them.
Thanks for the information on them.
Caren White (author) on October 03, 2017:
My last house had a shady yard so I too was on the hunt for solutions. Thanks for reading amd commenting.
Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on October 03, 2017:
I'm so glad to learn about the Lily of the Valley. I practically "live in the woods" and have a very shady property. I'm always on the lookout for shade-loving plants. Thanks!