December 20, 2012

The Forgotten Christmas Flower - Lily of the Valley

Two florists in a London Flower market admire forced pots of Lily of the Valley, a lost winter traditional pot plant which is due for a comeback. But why wait? I say it's time to force your own. Downton Abby style.

One Hundred years ago, flowers were a luxury item. Aside from a black laurel wreath for a funeral, or simple bouquets for a wedding, flowers rarely entered the home of the working class. What we know of today from gardening books and documentation, comes from a different lifestyle, that of the privileged - for unless was a gardener or a caretaker, a love of flowers, appreciating their beauty as well as that of nature was a practice of the single lady - the wealthy - the upper class. Everyone else shovelled coal, carried lunch pails or cleaned houses.

Today we are fortunate to live in a different world ( I think!). A world where orchids can be found at every hardware store next to inflatable snowmen and reindeer outlined in trailing disco running lights. Ahem. At risk of sounding curmudgeonly and old fashioned - what the hell happened to the poinsettia? The last time I looked, they were spray painted with glitter and as short as a silk point. They might as well be fake. I think it's time to take Christmas plants into my own hands. Time to zoom back in time to a quieter and more realistic era, that of 1805 to 1900.

Boxes of florist Lily of the Valley in a 1902 image 

I am forcing my own Lily of the Valley's this Christmas.

Why? Well first of all, just try and find some Lily of the Valley pips ( perhaps While Flower Farm?). They are impossible to find, yet I have a yard full of them. Second, you know I am a huge fan of forgotten flowers - those lost gems of Victoriana, the 18th and 19th Century when greenhouses and glasshouses first came into fashion, and thirdly - I am cheap. Yeah, finally I can admit it. I just can't bring myself to pay $75 dollars for 2 dozen pips to plant in a pot or two. My dad said that he and my mom always used to force their own at the Holidays ( often starting at Thanksgiving, even before that, potting up pips in mid-October, but as we are having a mild winter, enough so that I can still dig in the soil, and because in the past, my mail order sources delivered pips around Christmas, I figured, why not try my own.

We've lost so many horticultural traditions that surround Christmas. There was a time when white and red anemones, large white Christmas roses ( Hellebores), ruscus, Holly, Cyclamen, chrysanthemums, violets and Lily of the valley meant Christmas flowers. Even as recent as one hundred years ago, Christmas flowers were quite different. In some family photo albums from 1912, many of the flowers which we associate with the Holidays season were still unheard of yet images of camellia corsages from local florists appeared on everyone.

Like Petticoats and waistcoats, fashions change with time, and in the world of flowers, change happens just as quickly, but throughout the 18th and 19th Century, most Holiday plants and flowers remained the same. Before poinsettia and silk flowers, there were only those plants found in ones own garden, or if you lived near a large city where florists could be found, those plants and flowers which could be forced into bloom during the shortest days of the year.

1910 Lily of the Valley plants from a florist show some variation. Not all garden-dug pips will produce flowers, but most will. The larger the pip, the taller the floral stem.

Forcing such plants required skill and the proper materials. Not unlike many of the forced vegetables in the 1800's. Lily of the Valley were forced In hot beds, deep with manure and steam pipes, kept under cold glass with hot steam pipes running beneath the plunge. Pots could be forced into fragrant bloom from late December until April no matter how deep the snow was.

In 1900 most American and European home gardens had many greens and plants which could be dug for the Holidays. Of course there were fresh picked Holly greens, pines, spruce cones for craft and other evergreens as well as tiny woodland plants, especially those with red berries. In Europe, where Convallaria is native, the flower was often a traditional New Years flower, often strung on threads like pearls and used as a fashionable element for proper ladies. But from the florists, there could be found many choices which had been so traditional for generations whether one had their own hot houses for force in, or money to purchase such luxuries from the local greenhouse. Christmas at the turn- of-the- last century meant tables with Hellebores, white Anemones,  white chrysanthemums, and yes - white lily of the valley.

My own lily of the Valley pips show how many roots they can have. My hands were frozen, but I was able to carefully dig a few clumps out that look liked they have strong buds or pips. 

In 1910, all well appointed plant supply catalogs offered cleaned Lily of the Valley pips for home growers to force on windowsills and in their home greenhouses, in fact, until WWII, Lily of the Valley pips were as common as Paperwhite Narcissus are today. Old time gardeners used to trim roots back by half,  from their own rooted stocks, but I have found that a little rinse under the green house hose is enough. I fit as many as I can squeeze into a clay pot, add fresh soil and a gravel mulch, and then bring them into the house to force at warmer temperatures. Easy peasy. 

Some older books suggest that bottom heat is better than a hot room, some even suggesting that one keep pipes of hot water underneath pots bringing the temperature of the pots up to 85ºF while the room remains near 50º, ( i.e radiators or a nearby fire which is allowed to go out at night for that all important temperature shift) but I have found that by placing pots of freshly planted pips under lights which are on a 16 hour cycle an easy solution. Pots also work well on a cool windowsill, but pots which I keep in my cool 40º greenhouse slow down, often taking 5 weeks or more to bloom.

In Germany the Poinsettia was not a common Holiday plant. Here, where Christmas trees and Chrismas greens come from, the Lily of the Valley reigned as the choice, proper Holiday flower. What happened? I think the Lily of the Valley needs a new marketer, for somehow, we have forgotten all about it.

I spend so much time studying these lost trends in old books, but the idea that one can force ones own Lily of the Valley always captivated me. Victorian Christmas cards often showed clusters of Lily of the Valley, often alongside early camellias, Hellebores and even illustrated along with berries and holly. How in just one hundred years could such trends become lost? Such memories become forgotten?  I suppose the twentieth Century killed many traditions, and yet I doubt that today's Christmas icons of silk poinsettias or Rudolf will ever go away one hundred years from now, but I can't help but feel some sadness that all silk or plastic poinsettia found at local craft stores are modeled not after authentic tall poinsettias but instead, are modelled ironically on those which have been drenched with growth hormones to be less than 14 inches tall, a more manageable size for shelving units in shipping trucks and for peoples home. So sad that we are now reproducing genetically altered  plants and oddly iconizing them. Future generations may never know what  proper Point looks like.

In an effort to celebrate the gardening method of a century ago, I am going to force some of my own Lily of the Valley this year. Here in New England, we have been experiencing a mild December which has allowed me to dig a large clump (mat) of Convallaria ( Lily of the Valley) up from the front garden. If you have Lily of the Valley out doors int he garden, you must try and force some this year. If the soil is still soft, see if you can dig a few clumps up - they will force easity on a cool windowsill.

Once dug, I cut the mat of roots into pot-sized clumps, rinsing them off in water so that I could carefully see the pips or spike which will form the single leaf and flower stem. Those spikes with points tips will produce leaves, and those with a blunt end will produce a flower stem. Forcing Convallaria in December is a tradition which goes back at least 200 years, a popular home garden craft in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, where many New Years cards in the Victoria era showed Lily of the Valley flowers. In 1880, the most popular winter cut flower were scented violets, forced lilacs and Lily of the Valley, and even at the launch of the Titianic, guests were treated with garlands of strung Lily of the Valley blossoms and strings of Lilac flowers.


  1. Anonymous3:42 AM

    A very interesting post, Lilly Of The Valley is historic in our British culture, it was used in bridal bouquets for Royalty. More recently for Kate who is very much in our thoughts following the announcement of her good news. Trying to find some as we speak. All the best!

  2. Anonymous11:46 AM

    I like the flowers in the old boxes. It's like Terrain before there was Terrain.


  3. A most injoyable post! Makes me want to run outside & dig up some pips...i won't have them by Christmas but ANY time is a good time for fragrance. And the glasshouse is lacking in action lately. Thanks for the nudge!

  4. Thank you for the informative and poignant post. Unfortunately in Germany today the chemically-stunted poinsettia reigns supreme - and more or less alone - as the Christmas flower par excellence just as it does here.

  5. Matt
    Old Fashioned Poinsettias


    we also grew Iris as cut flowers and sold them in NYC

  6. hopflower8:38 PM

    Yes, indeed,Lily of the Valley is historic in British culture as noted above. And many cottage gardeners grew them; not just the gentry. Certainly violets are another one, and there is still a nursery largely devoted to them.

    Now that I live in California, I have to try to find a place for them; it generally is just too warm a climate even in the northern part here.

  7. hopflower2:15 PM

    Have a Very Happy Christmas and New year, Matt.

  8. Thanks for the look at history. It helps to be reminded of what people went through to get some things that we take for granted. It's also inspiration to look around the yard and see what we could force along. I dug a clump of Primula vulgaris four weeks ago to see if I could both divide them and encourage them into early blooming. I need to thank you for the article on South African bulbs in the greenhouse that was in the PBS bulletin. I've just built a greenhouse and my intent is bulbs from Telos and seeds from the exchanges...:)

  9. Fritz4:28 PM

    Never heard of forcing lily of the valley before! What a great idea. Every time I visit your blog I learn something new. Great work, as always.

  10. Thanks Fritz for your kind words. Yeah, I guess I am not surprised that we rarely see them anymore as a pot plant, my guess is that they are so short lived, that shipping them in bud to markets any distance is just not practical. It would need to be a regional product.

  11. alan gorkin11:07 AM

    I stumbled upon your site, and find it quite good. Ive been growing in greenhouses for over 30 years, and was under the impression that the Lily of the Valley that was forced in the old days was a tender variety with much larger flowers.

  12. OH, I am so going to give this a go. Thanks.

  13. Anonymous7:27 AM

    I am making a Lily of the Valley cone for the Christmas dinner table (as shown in The Victorian Kitchen Garden TV series from 1980s. Wish me luck!

  14. Hugh Boyd8:47 AM

    The custom of forcing lily of the valley in Britain declined, along with many labour intensive horticultural practises,as a result of the first world.
    Another example is the practice of vegetative propagation of such plants as bedding Violas, Calceolarias, heliotrope, lobelias and even certain varieties of named Nasturtiums amongst an endless list of other once common plants.
    What goes around comes around though, who would have guessed that many of these plants are back in fashion. Cuttings struck in areas of the world that don't have artificial heating costs and have a ready supply of cheap labour ,such as Columbia supply the world. Same can be said for cut flowers.There can't be many Rose or Carnation growers left in the Uk and North america.
    Back to lily of the valley, I purchased pips easily and cheaply from a dutch bulb supplier.


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