Friday, 18 January 2019

The Brain-Watkins Garden Flora: Lily of the Valley

Elv Brain & Willie Watkins' wedding, 1963. Photo: Brain-Watkins House Collection

LILY OF THE VALLEY    Convallaria majalis

When Elva Brain married Willie Watkins in 1963, lily of the valley was her wedding flower of choice. The small delicate blossoms in Elva’s wedding bouquet complemented her lace wedding dress and pearl jewellery. An arrangement of lily of the valley flowers in a fine crystal vase was placed on the top tier of the wedding cake.

Lily of the valley, with its association of modesty and purity, has long being favoured by brides through  the ages. Catherine Middleton on her marriage to Prince William in 2011 carried a bridal bouquet of lily of the valley as did Princess Grace of Monaco at her wedding in 1956. In the  “The Language of Flowers’, its meaning of ‘luck in love’ and ‘a return to happiness’  reveals a traditional  significance of the flower within the wedding ceremony.

Lily of the Valley in Brain-Watkins House. Photo: Anne Marquand

Convallaria (of the valley) majalis (May) was established in gardens from medieval times onwards and became one of the many flowers associated with the Virgin Mary. Tradition relates how the plant sprang from Mary’s tears at the Cross and from those tears shed by Mary Magdalene on finding Christ’s tomb. The country name for the plant ‘Our Lady’s Tears’ carries this Marian association. A red flowering variety was recorded in the 17th century and the double variety, ‘Flore Pleno’ was grown from the 18th century onwards.

The lily of the valley is a hardy perennial native to Europe and North America and grows in cool, moist climates throughout the world. Dark green oval leaves appear in early spring followed by fragrant bell shaped white flowers in late spring-early summer. The plant has an indefinite spread and grows best in a moisture retentive, nutrient dense soil in partial shade. It is propagated by dividing the creeping rhizomes in late autumn when the foliage has died down.

A fragrant essential oil distilled from the flowers is used in the perfume industry. The leaves yield a dye when mixed with lime water - green in spring and a yellow bronze colour from the mature leaves in autumn. The plant has no culinary use as all parts are poisonous.

Lily of the Valley in Brain-Watkins Garden. Photo: Anne Marquand
A memory from the 2004 Conservation Plan for Brain Watkins House  recalls lily of the valley growing along the fence on the Elizabeth Street side of the house. It still grows nearby today, now confined to a small bed amongst other cottage favourites, montbretia and the shasta daisy. The old pink flowering climbing rose shades the plants from the hot Tauranga sun.

Perhaps when Elva opened her bedroom window on a spring morning, the soft fragrance of the lily of the valley flowers floated though her room and in her later years that gentle scent ‘comforted the heart and vital spirits’. (Culpepper)

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