Photo and article by Donna Iverson
Before the end of the year, 35 million poinsettia will be sold for holiday decorations in this country, As the Christmas season approaches, poinsettias will grace home tables, porches, hospital rooms, nursing homes, TV sets and church altars.
Indigenous to Central America, its bright red flowers are easily recognizable from a distance as they seem to shout out for your attention.
But in our great grandparents' day, it wasn’t the poinsettia that was cherished as a Christmas flower. It was the small diminutive lily of the valley with its dainty bell-like white flowers and sweet scent.
Back around the turn of the last century, white flowers were favored during the winter holidays. In addition to lilies of the valley, there were cyclamens, white chrysanthemums, and violets. These plants contrasted nicely with red-berried holly branches.
A woodland flowering plant indigenous to Northern Europe, lily of the valley found its way first to New England and then to the Midwest. There it was sometimes called May bells, because that is when it bloomed. Today however, it sometimes blooms as early as March during mild winters.
Once established, it spreads readily by rhizomes, and will grow under trees and in the shade. As a child, I loved its intoxicating scent whenever I visited my grandmother who had planted it along the side of her house leading to the back door.
Christian Dior also valued the scent turning it into one of his best selling perfumes, introduced in 1956. A long lived cut flower, lily of the valley was often used in sweet-smelling bridal bouquets. Reportedly, it was also woven into wreaths and wrapped around the necks of passengers boarding the Titanic.
Mentioned in the Bible many times, lily of the valley pops up in folklore where it is often associated with bad luck and death. And in fact, it’s red berries are highly toxic to humans and animals.
A member of the asparagus family, lily of the valley kits are sold today in many holiday catalogs. There you can purchase kits to force lily of the valley plants to grow inside your home. The kit usually comes with a pot, soil medium and pips, which are planted, watered and placed on the window sill. It takes about four weeks for them to sprout and blossom. It is a real floral treat in the middle of a long Michigan winter. In the spring the plant can be transplanted outdoors where it will grow in your garden.
Of course if you already have lily of the valley in your yard, you can dig up some pips, plant them in a pot and place on your window sill and accomplish the same thing for free.