Fragrant and attractive, lily of the valley is a staple of the ornamental flower garden. A great ground cover option. In cooler climates this popular perennial continues to flower into winter.
The small, white bell shaped flowers of the plant cover delicate stems which sit above bright green leaves. Once flowering has finished for the year, the plant’s flowers are replaced by eye-catching bright red seed pods.
Happy to grow in a range of conditions, lily of the valley plants do best in moist conditions. Perennial in USDA Zones 2 to 9, the plant can struggle in warmer temperatures, noticeably in USDA zones 7 and above. Gardeners in warmer climates can still enjoy some success with lily of the valley by planting in a cooler, shady position and watering regularly.
This is your complete guide to growing lily of the valley.
The distinctive, bell shaped flowers of lily of the alley are a popular sight in late spring gardens.
Warning lily of the valley is toxic to cats, dogs and horses. It is also considered poisonous to humans. If consumed lily of the valley can cause vomiting, diarrhea, seizures and even death.
Lily of the Valley Varieties
Convallaria majalis, the small, white bell shaped flowering Lily of the Valley is commonplace. However, if you take the time to look in garden stores and nurseries you will find some more unusual varieties.
The Albostriata cultivar produces the typical white lily of the valley flowers. For this cultivar the point of difference, instead, comes in the plants foliage. Albostriata produces dark green leaves that are marked with cream stripes. Similarly Aureomarginata produces green leaves that have a cream-yellow edging.
Convallaria majuscule Greene is native to North America. The cultivar produces masses of flowers and foliage, making it a great natural ground cover option. Native cultivars are often easier to grow than more exotic varieties because they are better suited to your growing conditions. They are also more resistant to local pests and diseases.
Finally, the Rosea cultivar produces attractive pale pink flowers. Despite its attractive flowers, the plant is not as fragrant or as vigorous as the convallaria majalis cultivar.
Take the time to explore all the different varieties of lily of the valley. Try to find a cultivar, or a few cultivars that appeal to you and suit your growing conditions.
Where to Plant
An easy going plant, lily of the valley does best in a partial shade position. The soil should be evenly moist.
If you are unable to provide the ideal conditions, don’t worry these are surprisingly adaptable little plants. With a little extra care lily of the valley wcan be encouraged to thrive in full sun, shade and dry positions.
Make sure your chosen site has enough room to accommodate the plants. They can achieve a growth of about 1 ft in height.
Working well in forest planting schemes, these are resilient plants that can thrive in a range of conditions with the right care.
When to Plant
You can plant lily of the valley at any time of the year. However, it is best to plant either in early spring, from mid March until mid April, or in the early fall, from late September until October.
Don’t worry about planting bulbs in the fall. These plants require exposure to cool winter temperatures in order to become dormant. This dormant period is vital if you want the bulb to reflower the following year.
How to Plant
While these are versatile plants, they do like well draining soil. Planting in heavy soil, or soil that is slow to drain water away, can cause the bulbs to rot.
A soil testing kit tells you the makeup of your soil. This information can be used to quickly amend any potential problems before they affect the health of your plants.
Before planting dig the soil over well. Work in organic matter such as compost. Ground bark, well-rotted manure or peat moss can also be worked in to improve drainage.
Soak the roots in lukewarm water for about half an hour before planting. This helps the plants to establish themselves. As you soak the roots you will notice the pips beginning to swell and harden as they take on water.
Plant as quickly after soaking as possible. Don’t allow the pips time to dry out.
Before planting cut away about an inch of root. Like soaking, this helps to activate the roots and kick starts the growing process.
Plant in rich, well worked soil. If you are planting more than one lily of the valley, be sure to correctly space the plants. This enables air to circulate and helps to keep your flowers healthy and problem free.
Dig a hole roughly twice the size of the plant’s root system. The plant should comfortably fit inside the hole.
Sprinkle a handful of blood, fish and bone into the hole and work into the soil.
Position your plant in the hole, it should sit level or slightly above soil level. Plant to roughly the same depth as when the plant was in its container.
When you are happy with the position of the plant, backfill the hole and water well. New growth is usually quick to emerge, often within a week in warm conditions.
If you are planting more than one plant, try to space them at least 4 inches apart. This gives the plants room to grow without the danger of overcrowding.
Planting in Containers
Lily of the valley is perfectly suited to growing in containers or planters. Growing in containers also helps to control the plants’ sometimes vigorous growth habit.
Your chosen container should be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom. It should also be large enough to hold the plant’s extensive root system. This means planting in a deeper pot than you would for other bulbs.
Lily of the valley likes the soil to be kept evenly moist. This can be difficult during the warm summer months. Planting in a self-watering container is an easy way to make sure plants stay hydrated.
Fill the pot or planter with fresh, well-draining potting soil. Like planting in the ground, soaking the pips before planting and cutting the lower inch of the root away from the plant helps to stimulate growth. Plant as you would in a flower bed and water well.
Place the container in a partial shade position.
Transplanting Lily of the Valley
Lily of the valley is a pleasingly resilient plant. This means that you can transplant it with little worry.
Transplanting is best done in the fall, when the plant is dormant. However, despite its delicate appearance, this is a robust plant that can survive transplanting at any time of year. Just remember to give it lots of water.
To transplant use a trowel or shovel to dig a deep circle 6 to 8 inches wide around the plant. Digging deeply enables you to lift a large amount of the plant’s root system. Once you have encircled the plant a few times, carefully lift it from its position.
Prepare the new site by digging over the soil and working in organic matter such as compost. Dig a hole large enough to comfortably hold the root system of the plant.
Position the lily of the valley in the hole, planting to the same depth as in it’s previous position. Firm the soil down and water well.
How to Care for Lily of the Valley
Once planted lily of the valley is pleasingly easy to care for.
In cooler climates, if you are growing in containers, you may want to take the containers inside to protect the plants from deep frosts. Return the plants to their usual position in the spring. You can also cover the plants with a horticultural fleece, such as the Agfabric Plant Cover, to protect the bulbs from deep frosts.
When to Water
With a watering can, water flowers regularly from the spring until the fall, aim to apply about an inch of water every week. During wet periods plants require less water.
If you are unsure when to water, use a soil moisture meter such as the Gouven Soil Moisture Meter. This tells you the moisture content of your soil. When you notice the soil beginning to dry out, water well.
Remember, a regular deep watering is better for the plants than more frequent light waterings.
When watering try to keep the foliage as dry as possible. Water the soil around the plant instead of watering the plant. Wet foliage can lead to plants developing mildew and other issues.
When watering, try to keep the foliage as dry as possible. This helps to prevent mildew type diseases from forming.
Do I Need to Fertilize?
These are not heavy feeding plants. Scatter a handful of organic or natural fertilizer such as blood, fish and bone around the plants in March, and again in August. This provides the plants with more than enough nutrients.
Never apply a nitrogen heavy fertilizer. This encourages foliage production, at the expense of flowering.
How to Prune
An easy to care for plant, lily of the valley doesn’t require regular pruning.
After flowering has finished for the year, allow the leaves to remain on the plant. This enables the bulb to continue storing energy. This energy store is vital because it helps the bulbs to survive the winter and flower the following year.
Once the leaves turn yellow they can be pruned away with a garden scissors if you want to.
Companion planting is the practice of growing mutually beneficial plants together. This helps to keep plants healthy while also making garden maintenance easier.
Lily of the valley is a vigorous, shade loving plant. While it is often planted on its own, if you do want to plant in a combination, plant it alongside other plants with similar preferences.
Good companions include:
You can also plant lily of the valley under flowering shrubs such as azaleas and rhododendrons.
Avoid planting with slow growing or small plants that can be easily smothered by lily of the valley’s vigorous growth habit.
Lily of the valley works well when planted alongside a range of other flowers such as columbine.
Common Pests and Problems
These are pleasingly robust plants that are rarely troubled by pests. With the right care they are also unlikely to succumb to disease.
The most common lily of the valley problem is leaf spot. This causes dark spots to appear on the foliage. If the affected leaves aren’t removed, they will fall from the plant. The disease can also spread to other plants throughout the garden.
Cut away and burn affected leaves as soon as you notice them.
It is currently thought that leaf spot is caused by growing in damp or humid conditions. Correctly spacing the plants, so that air can circulate around them, and keeping the foliage as dry as possible when watering can help to prevent leaf spot.
Yellowing foliage is common as the plant dies back in the fall. It is a sign that the plant is becoming dormant. Foliage yellowing at other times of year can mean the plant is suffering from rust.
In the right position, and with the right care, lily of the valley is a pleasingly problem free plant.
Rust is a fungal disease that is usually caused by overcrowding your plants. It can also be caused by plants sitting in overly wet soil.
Stem rot causes yellow spots to appear on the foliage of the plant. Like rust this is a fungal disease. There is no cure for stem rot. Instead dig up and destroy the plant and sterilize the soil.
Foliar nematodes can also cause the leaf veins to yellow. Attracted by wet foliage, foliar nematode is difficult to get rid of. It is often easier to dig up affected plants and start again.
A failure to flower can mean that the plant has not yet established itself in the right position. Overcrowding can also discourage flowering as can overly dry conditions.
You can propagate lily of the valley by division or by seed.
Harvesting and Sowing Seeds
Always wear gloves while handling lily of the valley berries. This protects your hands from the poisonous flesh.
As the flowers fade they are replaced by bright red berries. Inside these berries are the seeds.
Be careful when handling the bright red berries. The flesh is poisonous if consumed.
The berries are ripe and ready to harvest when they shrivel and turn a shade of rusty brown. Placing a mesh or garden netting over the plant prevents birds from harvesting the berries before they are ripe. Once the berries are ripe cut them away from the plant.
To remove the seed from the berry, soak it in warm water for an hour. This causes the berry to soften and swell, you can then remove the flesh from the seed.
Each berry or pod can contain up to 3 seeds. The seeds do not store well and quickly lose their viability. Consequently, you need to sow the seeds as soon as possible after harvesting.
Sow in place, either in the ground or in a pot, in a lightly shaded area. Dig the soil over, to a depth of about 6 inches. For an extra boost, work in compost or organic matter before sowing. Weed the bed thoroughly and rake smooth over.
Sow each seed a quarter of an inch deep. Firm down the soil and water.
Continue to keep the soil moist even after the seeds have germinated. Protect young plants from slugs and other pests. Flowers may take several years to form.
Propagation from seed can be difficult and you are not always guaranteed an exact replica of the parent plant. In contrast propagation by division is surprisingly easy.
Divisions can be taken up to 6 weeks before the first hard frost of the year. This allows the plants time to establish themselves before the winter temperatures hit. Dividing in the fall, before the first frosts, also allows the plants an opportunity to enjoy the cool winter temperatures. Exposure to cooler temperature is vital if you want the plants to flower the following spring.
Water the plants well the day before dividing. Trim taller leaves and stalks down, to a height of about 5 to 6 inches is ideal.
Dig up the plants with a trowel or a fork. Encircling the plant, about 6 to 8 inches away from the center of the plant, enables you to lift a sizable clump without damaging the bulb.
Carefully lift the plant, trying to disturb it as little as possible.
If the plants have been in place for a few years the root system may be tangled. Gently tease apart the roots.
Cut away sections of roots that have pips attached. The pips are the small swellings on the roots. From these pips new plants grow.
Plant the separated roots on in a new position. When planting aim to have at least 2 pips below the soil level with some stem above the soil.
Water well and mulch around the plants. This helps to protect them from pests and winter frosts. In early spring remove the mulch to help new sprouts emerge.
Space pips 4 to 5 inches apart. If you are transplanting a large clump, give it 1 to 2 ft of space.
Divisions produce flowers the following year.
A surprisingly robust plant, the lily of the valley is a pleasingly low maintenance addition to the ornamental garden.
Pleasingly robust, despite its delicate appearance lily of the valley is an attractive addition to the ornamental garden. They also provide a reliable shady ground cover option.
Happy to grow in flower beds or planters, this is a fragrant plant that, with a little care, returns year after year.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.