By Teo Spengler
You’ve heard of lily of the valley from the childhood rhyme, if nothing else. But what about false lily of the valley, also called wild lily of the valley flowers (Maianthemum dilatatum)? For more information about this plant, click here.
The Spruce / David Beaulieu
Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) is not a true lily it's actually part of the asparagus family, though its foliage is reminiscent of some lilies. The plant typically has medium green leaves that arch about 5 to 10 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide from the center of a clump. And it sports petite, fragrant, white flowers in the spring on long stems that rise from the leaf clumps. Orange-red berries appear later in the fall. Don't let the delicate appearance of lily of the valley flowers fool you. This is a hardy ground cover that grows and spreads quickly. It is best planted in the fall.
|Botanical Name||Convallaria majalis|
|Common Names||Lily of the valley, May bells, lady’s tears, Mary’s tears, Mayflower|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous, perennial|
|Mature Size||6–12 in. tall, 9–12 in. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Partial, full|
|Soil Type||Rich, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Hardiness Zones||3–8 (USDA)|
|Toxicity||Toxic to people and animals|
I can't count the times I've seen some rampant planting that has overgrown its bounds and escaped its proper bed in my garden, and asked myself, WHAT WAS I THINKING. But every spring, as the lily of the valley flowers open in May, I remember exactly what I was thinking when I planted them: that rich, overwhelming fragrance. For its sake, I almost forgive the plant's invasive ways. Even when I am digging and hacking them out of the places where they don't belong, I would never quite rid myself of them entirely, even if I could.
(Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 4, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
There really is much reason to recommend Convallaria majalis as a groundcover for shady, woodsy areas. The flowers not only have a delightful scent, they are attractive little white or pink bells on short upright scapes. Of course, when it comes to scents, what is delightful for some is overpowering or cloying to others. If you are considering whether to plant lily of the valley, you should first make sure which group you belong to. But for those of us who enjoy it, nothing is more pleasant than a spring day with its fragrance on the breeze, or cutting a half-dozen stems to fill a tiny vase and perfume the house. It is also suitable for forcing in winter, like the equally-fragrant paperwhite narcissus.
Unfortunately, the flowers are not long-lasting and the bright orange fruits are too small to be significant in the garden. But the foliage remains standing as a groundcover throughout the year, each plant a small, upright cluster of dark green, lanceolate leaves, about six inches in height. Some cultivars, such as "Albostriata," are available with variegated leaves, and double-flowered versions, e.g., "Prolificans," have now been produced by breeders. An isolated lily of the valley plant is an insignificant object, but a single plant usually does not remain single for long. If it does not languish and die, it spreads. And spreads, and spreads. This, of course, is what makes Convallaria useful as a groundcover. But the experienced gardener knows that "makes a good groundcover" in the plant catalog is really a euphemism for "invasive as Genghis Khan." Once established under favorable conditions, the spread of lily of the valley is close to unstoppable.
Like many other invasive groundcovers, Convallaria propagates itself vegetatively from underground rhizomes. While it does produce seeds, the cross between daughter plants descended from a single parent seems to be sterile, and it spreads so vigorously that an entire bed might be daughters of the same original parent. The rhizomes are thin and twisty, root-like rather than fleshy, and they spread out horizontally in all directions, pausing every few inches to throw up a new plant. These pips, as they are called, are easily separated to transplant in new locations. They are best planted as early as possible in the spring.
Lily of the valley prefers a cool, moist, shaded area with a soil containing organic matter. Its ability to thrive in the shade is one reason for its popularity as a groundcover, although it may not flower in extremely dense shade. It does not like a situation that is too sunny or too hot or dry, although it is more able to tolerate these conditions later in the summer than in the spring. These factors mean that it is less likely to thrive in the warmer, drier zones, where the leaves may turn brown and die back in midsummer. In cooler zones, lily of the valley usually doesn't go dormant until the frost season, only to emerge again in early spring, usually several feet beyond where it used to reach.
Lily of the valley is not generally bothered by insect pests, perhaps because all parts of the plant are toxic. Neither is it very susceptible to most diseases. With regard to control, it is susceptible to herbicides, but this carries the usual risks and drawbacks of herbicide use. In addition to which, the nature of its invasiveness, by sneaking underground in all directions, often causes it to emerge unwanted among other, more desirable perennial plants that would likely be harmed by any herbicide application.
Thus the best, most practical method of eradication in such situations is to dig invader out by the roots. In loose soil, you may be able to rip out two or three emergent pips with a single pull. If they are not removed entirely, however, every root of them, it is likely that they will return. And in many cases, it is not possible to extricate the invasive rhizomes from the other plants without damage. Once the lily of the valley is growing up between the roots of the hostas, it may be to late to entirely eliminate it.
It is still possible to slow the spread, however, by pulling out every visible plant above the ground - making sure the plants have opened far enough that you can tell the lily of the valley from the unfurled hosta! If it happens to invade the lawn, mowing will also have the same effect.
Even better is keeping the problem from arising in the first place. If you plant Convallaria as a groundcover, make sure it is not in any position where it can invade nearby [or not so nearby] beds. Be prepared to have yards and yards of it covering the ground. Also be aware that attempts to contain it may not be successful. I have tried in the past to restrain its spread by installing deep edging as a barrier, but the rhizomes tunneled underneath to escape with vexing ease. Another method is to use a sharp-edged shovel around the boundary of the planting to sever the rhizomes, but all too often, they have already made their break for the freedom beyond.
Above all, be very wary of the thought that a nice, tidy little clump of lily of the valley would be a good addition to your perennial woodland garden. In that tidy little clump is the beginning of a ruthless invasion.
|Genus:||Maianthemum (may-an-the-mum) (Info)|
|Species:||dilatatum (dil-uh-TAY-tum) (Info)|
|Synonym:||Maianthemum bifolium var. dilatatum|
Drought-tolerant suitable for xeriscaping
Average Water Needs Water regularly do not overwater
USDA Zone 3b: to -37.2 °C (-35 °F)
USDA Zone 4a: to -34.4 °C (-30 °F)
USDA Zone 4b: to -31.6 °C (-25 °F)
USDA Zone 5a: to -28.8 °C (-20 °F)
USDA Zone 5b: to -26.1 °C (-15 °F)
USDA Zone 6a: to -23.3 °C (-10 °F)
USDA Zone 6b: to -20.5 °C (-5 °F)
USDA Zone 7a: to -17.7 °C (0 °F)
USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)
USDA Zone 8a: to -12.2 °C (10 °F)
USDA Zone 8b: to -9.4 °C (15 °F)
USDA Zone 9a: to -6.6 °C (20 °F)
USDA Zone 9b: to -3.8 °C (25 °F)
This plant is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds
May be a noxious weed or invasive
From seed winter sow in vented containers, coldframe or unheated greenhouse
From seed direct sow after last frost
Properly cleaned, seed can be successfully stored
This plant is said to grow outdoors in the following regions:
On Jun 13, 2012, bellinghamroof from Bellingham, WA wrote:
No, No, No!! I planted this into my garden, and it was ever-so-lovely for a few years. Then I noticed that it had overwhelmed and killed several of my ferns. Then I tried to dig it up -- it's roots are worse than quack-grass and can go 8 inches deep, under tree roots, etc. I've not been able to erradicate it by carefully sifting the soil or any herbicide. Here's what my research showed: "[False lily-of-the-valley] is a major weed problem in cranberry bogs in western U.S.. It resists all means of control with registered herbicides and gradually smothers out the cranberry vines. Complete removal of all soil infected with false lily-of-the-valley or fumigation are the only two control methods currently available."
On Nov 18, 2009, bonehead from Cedarhome, WA (Zone 8b) wrote:
This is a native plant in the Pacific NW. Whenever I bring forest dirt in to my flower beds, I get some of these. They make a nice groundcover and are easy to pull from areas you don't want them.
On Jul 4, 2003, Terry from Murfreesboro, TN (Zone 7a) wrote:
A pretty plant in bloom, with spikes of white flowers rising above glossy, clean leaves. But it's invasive and care should be taken when incorporating it into beds where it may elbow out less vigorous plants.
Q.: What suggestions to you have for eliminating a considerable bed of lilies of the valley in my side yard, adjacent to the lawn. They tend to spread and take over whatever is near. I note there is a considerable root system and just pulling them up is not working.
Lucille Collins, Muskegon
A. The best way to get rid of lily of the valley is to kill the entire plant, roots, runners and leaves and this can be done with what is known as a non-selective herbicide. Finale and Round Up are two popular brands. Your observation of the bed being considerable and that the lilies have a sturdy root system and take over nearby plantings is correct and is, in my opinion, why they don't belong in the home landscape. If you dig them up, you simply break the roots into more pieces and from these pieces grow more plants. So, digging or pulling the plants up generally results in more plants sooner, than had you left them alone in the first place.
I think it's okay to use lily of the valley in a bed that is enclosed by a deep (eight inches in the ground) edging. Most commercial edging does not have that depth, leaving treated wood as about the only practical option. The foliage is a lovely deep green and the flowers in late spring are beautiful - but this temporary beauty. It is an aggressive, nasty plant if you want to grow anything short of a tree nearby - the term used in the horticulture industry is invasive.
As you may know, non-selective herbicides such as Round Up kill virtually everything that is touched by the spray. If the bed of lily of the valley also has grass or perennials in it, this will be killed if the spray touches their foliage. If you have perennials there, direct the herbicide spray on the lily plants only. If any gets on the perennial foliage, hose it down right away. If the lilies are mingling with the grass, there isn't much you can do but spray the whole bed. You may need a second application. Then you can rake all the dead stuff up in two or three weeks, cut the stubble down, and re-seed if it's grass you are after.
I wish I had a better solution, but this is about it - as drastic as it seems. Keep in mind that autumn is a splendid time to establish grass - either in renovation or a whole new lawn. So, killing off the lily of the valley in mid-summer and preparing the area for the ideal grass-growing season that begins in late August in Michigan would be a smart move.
If you go the herbicide route, be sure to read and heed label instructions.
If you want to plant something other than grass in the bed, and want a ground cover, then you have many choices - myrtle, pachysandra and ivy are among several popular ground covers that grow in semi-sunny to shady locations. Or, you could go to a taller ground cover and if then you have lots of choices - I've seen daylilies, ornamental grasses, and low-growing junipers all used to (in different beds) as splendid ground covers.
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It’s wise to rely on deer repellent as little as possible. There are many plants that deer don’t usually find tasty. We refer to these are known as deer resistant plants, which for the most part are generally passed by. The more of these you have growing, the less spraying you should have to do.
As a general rule of thumb, deer will not be attracted to certain groups of plants:
Deer in different areas seem to be attracted to different plants. This could be due to a sudden shortage of food caused by bad weather. It could also be caused by the different plants available in the wild the deer are accustomed to eating, which will vary from place to place.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a deer proof garden or landscape without a really tall fence, or an electric fence. Just like any starving creature, if the deer are hungry enough – they will eat anything that isn’t poisonous to them.
This year’s youngsters will take a bite of many plants, and spit it out if it doesn’t taste good. It’s irritating to find chomped off stems and tops lying on the ground, but this is how they learn what tastes good. Kids will be kids, no matter how many legs they have.