Convallaria majalis

The lily-ofthe-valley, though happy in slightly acid or in alkaline soil, and in either town or country gardens, is a little bit unpredictable. Plant it in ideal conditions and it may not settle; plant it in an unlikely place and it may romp away. Graham Thomas, plantsman extraordinary, suggests planting it ‘here and there’ to see which site suits best.

A native woodland plant, it was once common in Britain in the wild, and Miss Mitford, author of the nineteenth-century classic, Our Village, used to pick it in basketsful in the Hampshire woods.

Geoffrey Grigson, author of the contem-porary classic, The Englishman’s Flora, says that, confounding all expectation, it still grows in dry limestone places in Yorkshire, though it is now increasingly rare. It is still common in France, especially in forests near Paris.

Few flowers have such intensity of scent. Each flower stalk, springing from a pair of large, fresh green elliptical leaves, is 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) tall, and carries a number of tiny white waxy bells in late spring which pour out a perfume rivalled only by that of sweet-peas. It prefers a light soil rich in leafmould, and when the plant takes kindly to its situation it will spread rapidly underground to form a carpet. Deciduous small trees make a friendly canopy, and it is rampant under an arching cotoneaster in my own chalky cottage garden, though I have seen it thriving just as well under a garden wall in London. I give mine a mulch of compost when the leaves have died down. Do not plant it too closely; crowns put in 6 inches (15 cm) apart will soon join up if they take kindly to their site.

The garden variety ‘Fortin’s Giant’, rather larger than the wild form, flowers a week or two later, so that if you grow both you can have lilies-ofthe-valley in bloom for a month on end. They are perfect for picking for a cool room.

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