Lilyofthevalley

(Convallaria maialis) Associated in Britain with Whitsuntide, when the churches would be decorated with them (J Addison). But on the Continent, they are earlier blooming apparently, and are the emblems of May Day, muguet de mai in France, and Maiblume, or Maiglöckchen in Germany. It is only fair to add, though, that Gerard knew it as May Lily, and Mayflower Lily is another British name for it (Tynan & Maitland). They are, too, traditionally worn by participants in the Helston Furry Dance (Vickery. 1995), usually held on 8 May. Lilies-of-the-valley are a customary May Day gift in Paris. Large quantitites of them are sold for the purpose (Hole. 1976). Both the flower and the scent ("muguet") are widely advertised as May Day approaches (M Baker. 1977). Gardeners' wisdom has it that lilies-of-the-valley only thrive when Solomon's Seal ("their husbands") are growing nearby (M Baker. 1974). But in Devonshire superstition, it is unlucky to plant a bed of these plants, as the person to do so will be sure to die within the year (Notes and Queries; 1850). Is this a relic of the German belief, quoted by Lea, that said that lilies-of-the-valley buried under the threshold of a stall will bewitch the cattle and milk? It does, though, belong to the group of white flowers, like snowdrops and white lilac, that will cause death if brought into the house - and lily-of-the-valley is always unlucky for girls. It is the girl child who will die, so they say in Somerset, if they are brought indoors (Tongue. 1965).

The Sussex folk tale called the Basket of Lilies starts: "There was a woman who loved Lilies-of-the-valley. She'd be always looking for them or sending her little daughter to find a bunch to bring home, so of course the little girl sickened and died, as everyone knew she would ..." (Tongue. 1970). This plant was sometimes used as an ingredient in love potions (Coats), for it was said to encourage virtue and faithfulness. As such, it was sometimes included in a bride's bouquet (A W Hatfield).

They can be toxic, though, and are dangereously poisonous if eaten by animals or poultry (Forsyth). The drug is actually convallotoxin,which has been used for treating patients recovering from a stroke (Conway), and it has often been been used as a substitute for digitalin (Lloyd), and so as a heart stimulant, though it is less powerful than digitalin. The dose in Russian folk medicine (and not only in folk medicine, for it was widely prescribed throughout the Soviet Union (Thomson. 1976) ), is one tablespoonful of the flowers and leaves to a pint of boiling water, infused for an hour, and a tablespoonful of this taken once or twice a day (Kourennoff). The root was used in Ireland for heart disease (Maloney).

A Wiltshire nerve tonic was a leaf infusion, or a root decoction, taken in small doses night and morning. It was also reckoned to strengthen the memory, and to be a good tonic remedy after a stroke (see above), and to help restore lost speech, and to reduce high blood pressure (Wiltshire), which is interesting, for American domestic medicine recognises that a tea made from the plant is good for heart trouble (H M Hyatt). In Russia, it was used for dropsy (Lloyd), and it was taken with some effect for treating men who had been gassed in World War I (Grieve). It is a wound plant, too - there are records of treating cuts and abrasions by binding a leaf on them (Vickery. 1995).

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