I realise that Lily of the Valley is not everyone’s cup of tea but these little flowers and I have history: quite a bit of history in fact.
My photograph doesn’t show them at their best (ahem) which causes me a pang of guilt and a determination to look after them a little better. Experienced CABAHS gardeners will perhaps find it a little eccentric of me to “look after” what many consider to be nothing more than a weed.
The new shoots you can see in this picture sit in their pot outside my door in south east London, but I have known them (or maybe their great grandparents) since 1968, when they made the journey from my grandmother’s house in Stanley Road to our house in Hollingworth Street, Oldham. I am astonished to find that Google Maps thinks that distance is 60 yards. I would have put it at far less!
My dad was born in the house in Stanley Road in 1924. He and my mother had moved to Hollingworth Street after they were married in 1951. Neither house had a garden; just a small, and rather dark, backyard. In 1968 his mother died. The house was sold, the contents dispersed but my mother rescued the plant pot of Lily of the Valley, the single item of colour in my grandmother’s backyard, installing it as the single item of colour in our own backyard. So it remained for many years. A bit of the rim of the pot came away in a particularly harsh winter but my dad stuck it back together and the pot lives on still.
With my mother’s encouragement I became almost as excited as she did when the first shoots of the Lily of the Valley started to appear, letting us know it was Spring. And their perfume! Nothing can ever match it for me.
When I left home my mother began to accumulate more pots of plants for the backyard, so that in time it became almost impossible to see the bare flagstones in the summer. If I concentrate now I can hear my dad grumble about these pots and see my mother wink and say, “He thinks they’re great, really!”
I’d quite forgotten about the Lily of the Valley until I moved into my own house. In 1988 the clump was divided and I became owner of a half-share of the inheritance. They stayed in their pot, a plastic one this time, and came with me on two house moves. Some of their offspring have found a home in Ireland, some in Scotland. They’re now well-travelled!
These days I think about them a lot. I wonder how old any of the individual plants are. I wonder too where my grandmother acquired them from in the first place. It pleases me to think that I can trace them back for 50 years at least.
Shortly after my mother died I was in Vienna one Spring. At every station on the underground system there were tiny, impromptu flower stalls with just one thing to sell: small bunches of Lily of the Valley, which infused the entire station, so it seemed, with their heavenly perfume.
I discovered then that in some countries Lily of the Valley is traditionally given as a May Day gift. Happy May Day, everyone!