True or False?

Sharpen your pencils, it is the season for final exams. But don’t worry too much: this is an open-book test (if Nature can be said to be an open book).

Given my druthers, I will always choose to take tests outdoors, where true and false describe two varieties of lily of the valley flowers.

True lily of the valley and false lily of the valley appeal to different folks. In your (or your neighbor’s yard), the true lily of the valley stands neatly, flowering to please throughout May. But in the woods, another lily of the valley vies for your attention. False lily of the valley, native cousin of lily of the valley, also beckons with its more wild, unkempt look.

Each flower has its own names, history, characters and charms, which, of course, makes for a difficult decision.

The true lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis, hails from Europe. It was introduced as a landscape plant, but has escaped in some areas. It was destined to become popular and prolific, due to both its appealing bell-shaped flowers and the sacred stories surrounding it.

An alternate name for this flower is “our Lady’s tears,” which refers to Christian myths that describe its origin in a few different ways. After her banishment from Eden, Eve was said to have cried a river, and from her tears sprung lily of the valley flowers.  Another legend identifies Mary as the producer of the tears that created lilies of thevalley. Her sorrow and tears came during the crucifixion and, later, when she found Christ’s tomb empty. The second part of the scientific name, “majalis,” means belonging to Mary.

In a different story, the flower’s origin is ascribed to a man. In this case, it could be said that boys don’t cry. Brave Saint Leonard of Noblac would never weep. During his battles with a dragon, the blood that spilled from his body came up as lilies of the valley, while the dragon’s blood produced toxic vines. Besides the flowers, he leaves Saint Leonard’s forest in England for remembrance.

No matter how the lilies of the valley got here, many are glad that they did. The plant is said to be a symbol of humility and of Christ’s second coming. Herbalists advised using this plant for a variety of ailments, and a recommendation to smear the plant on your forehead and back of neck for common sense is quiteintriguing. My sources, however, list true lily of the valley as poisonous to humans, so to me common sense points toward keeping it o ff yourskin. Lily of the valley was also purported to give “power to men to envision a better world.” Who wouldn’t want such a plant around?

The advocates for false lily of the valley might beg to differ. This variety is native to the Island (and thus not as “false” as its cousin, around here anyway) and is valued by wildlife, including the bees, birds and deer. The nightingale is thought to be drawn by its fragrance, which is said then to lead him to choose hismate. Its berries are edible, which give rise to its aliases of deerberry andsnakeberry. (Clearly, here is a flower in need of a PR agent to find betternames!) It is also called false Solomon’s seal (see what I mean?), Canada mayflower, May lily and deer heart (which is actually not bad) because of its heart-shaped leaves.

No matter what variety is your favorite, there is no need to tell. This choice can be made by secret ballot, or we can just avoid the decision in favor of all of the above.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.