The Lily-of-the-Valley, with its broad leaves and fragrant little, nodding, white, bell-shaped flowers, is familiar to everyone.
In early spring days, the creeping rhizome, or underground stem, sends up quill-like shoots emerging from a scaly sheath. As they lengthen and uncoil, they are seen to consist of two leaves, their stalks sheathing one within the other, rising directly from the rhizome on long, narrowing foot-stalks, one leaf often larger than the other. The plain, oval blades, with somewhat concave surfaces, are deeply ribbed and slant a little backwards, thus catching the rain and conducting it by means of the curling-in base of the leaf, as though in a spout, straight down the foot-stalk to the root. At the back of the leaves, lightly enclosed at the base in the same scaly sheath, is the flower-stalk, quite bare of leaves itself and bearing at its summit a number of buds, greenish when young, each on a very short stalk, which become of the purest white, and as they open turn downwards, the flowers hanging, like a pearl of fairy bells, each bell with the edges turned back with six small scallops. The six little stamens are fastened inside the top of the bell, and in the centre hangs the ovary. There is no free honey in the little flowers, but a sweet, juicy sap is stored in a tissue round the base of the ovary and proves a great attraction to bees, who also visit the flower to collect its pollen and who play an important part in the fertilization of the flowers.
By September, the flowers have developed into scarlet berries, each berry containing vermilion flesh round a pale, hard seed. Though the plant produces fruit freely under cultivation, its propagation is mainly effected by its quickly-creeping underground stem, and in the wild state its fruit rarely comes to maturity. Its specific name, Majalis, or Maialis, signifies ‘that which belongs to May,’ and the old astrological books place the plant under the dominion of Mercury, since Maia, the daughter of Atlas, was the mother of Mercury or Hermes.
There is an old Sussex legend that St. Leonard fought against a great dragon in the w woods near Horsham, only vanquishing it after a mortal combat lasting many hours, during which he received grievous wounds, but wherever his blood fell, Lilies-of-theValley sprang up to commemorate the desperate fight, and these woods, which bear the name of St. Leonard’s Forest to this day, are still thickly carpeted with them.
Legend says that the fragrance of the Lilyof-the-Valley draws the nightingale from hedge and bush, and leads him to choose his mate in the recesses of the glade.
The Lily-of-the-Valley is one of the British-grown plants included in the Pharmacopoeia, and its medicinal virtues have been tested by very long experience. Although not in such general use as the Foxglove, it is still prescribed by physicians with success. Its use dates back to ancient times, for Apuleius in his Herbal written in the fourth century, declares it was found by Apollo and given by him to Æsculapius, the leech.
In recent years it has been largely employed in experiments relating to the forcing of plants by means of anaesthetics such as chloroform and ether. It has been found that the winter buds, placed in the vapour of chloroform for a few hours and then planted, break into leaf and flower considerably before others not tested in this manner, the resulting plants being, moreover, exceptionally fine.