Although I’m a Canadian, I was brought up on stories of the Pilgrims and how they sailed across the Atlantic in 1620 on a boat called the Mayflower to found Plymouth Colony, the first successful English-speaking colony in the New World. They were later to become recognized as the founding fathers of today’s United States of America.
I’m not sure whether I learned this in history class or on television, but Canadians in general have a better grasp of American history than Americans do of Canadian history.
But I’m not a historian, I’m a plant geek who’s curious about all aspects of plants. So, I wanted to know, what’s the story behind the name of their ship, the Mayflower? And I discovered some interesting facts.
The Flower Behind the Name
The plant the English called mayflower back in the 1600s was in fact a plant most gardeners know well today, but by another name: lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). Widely distributed throughout most of Northern and Central Europe, this plant normally bloomed in early May, which explains part of its botanical name, for if Convallaria means “of the valley,” majalis means “of May.” In England, the “mayflower” was considered the symbol of the month of May.
In case you wondered, there is also a plant called mayflower or trailing arbutus native to Eastern North America: Epigaea repens, a creeping woodland plant with upward-facing white to pale pink flowers that in no way resemble the dangling bell-shaped white flowers of today’s lily of the valley. But it was named mayflower at a later date, perhaps by settlers nostalgic for the flower that symbolized spring back in their native land, C. majalis. And E. repens does bloom in May… well, at least in part of its vast territory.
In Ancient Times
The tradition of the lily of the valley—or mayflower or Convallaria majalis or whatever you want to call it—as a symbol of spring far predates the Pilgrims.
In the northern Europe, for example, the mother goddess was associated with lily of the valley and its flowers used to be tacked onto maypoles during the annual rites of spring of the Celts, the Picts and the Germanic tribes.
Among the Romans, the lily of the valley was the symbol of Flora, the goddess of flowers, and celebrated during their spring festival, Florales, held in early May. Other peoples throughout Europe, from the Greeks to the Finns, considered the lily of the valley a symbol of spring and rebirth.
With the arrival of Christianity, though, the lily of the valley, now considered a thoroughly pagan flower, was essentially banished from use and came to be seen as just another spring flower… that is, until 16th-century France.
A Tradition Reborn
Legend has it that it was Charles IX of France who renewed the tradition of the mayflower/lily of the valley. Charmed by the beautiful and delicious scent of the beautiful woodland wildflower, known to him as “muguet” (from Old French for musk-scented), he gave a nosegay (small bouquet) of lily of the valley flowers to each of the ladies of his court on May 1, 1561, and it was an instant hit. Pleased with the result, he declared, “Let it be so every year,” and indeed, it was so. Soon the practice spread across France.
Over time, the tradition was that women would carry a nosegay of lily of the valley on May Day (May 1st) while men would wear a sprig on their lapel. Superstition reigned at the time and it was believed that bearing the lily of the valley on May 1st brought health and happiness. A sprig bearing of 13 flowers was considered particularly lucky.
Into the Twentieth Century
Like many traditions, however, wearing of the “muguet de mai” had begun to die out by the late 1800s, but was revived quite suddenly when French singer and entertainer Félix Mayol first arrived in Paris on May 1, 1895, and received a bouquet of lily of the valley from his Parisian friend, Jenny Cook. Charmed by the gift, he wore a sprig of lily of the valley in his buttonhole that night, the opening of his first Parisian show. It was a huge success and he became a great star. Since he always felt the lily of the valley had brought him luck, it became his personal emblem and he always wore it in public, soon to be copied by others. Essentially he had single-handedly revived a fading tradition.
French fashion designers also adopted the trend and began to offer their clients and female employees bouquets of lily of the valley on May 1st. In fact, they still do. Christian Dior eventually made it the emblem of his house of fashion and incorporated the scent of lily of the valley into his best perfumes.
Of course, May 1st is also Labor Day (Fête du Travail) in France (as in many countries around the world) and inevitably the two merged, officially so during the Second World War. Today the 1st of May is a holiday in France and Belgium where it is just as likely to be called “la Fête du muguet” (Lily of the valley Day) as la Fête du Travail.
May Day in France Today
Visit any French-speaking city in Europe on May 1st and you’ll see them everywhere; flower sellers offering sprigs, bouquets and pots of “mayflowers.” In a law dating back to the French Revolution, itinerant sales of lily of the valley in public spaces are officially tolerated on May 1st as long as they are wild-harvested, thus no taxes need be charged. That means anyone with access to a few clumps of lily of the valley can become a flower seller for a day… and many people try their luck.
Producing lily of the valley for May Day is a major business in France and Belgium and prices soar if there is a poor crop. In Brussels a few years ago, I saw small bouquets of just two meager sprigs of lily of the valley selling for €13 (about 13 US dollars), because spring had come too soon and flowers were rare that year.
When all goes well, about 60 million sprigs, bouquets and pots of lily of the valley are sold in France each 1st of May, but only 10% of the blossoms are harvested from wild plants. Most of the production comes from specialized farms, most located near Nantes and Bordeaux, where harvesting and preparing lily of the valley gives seasonal work to about 7,000 people.
In North America
There is no tradition of a lily of the valley day in North America.
First of all, in Canada and the US, Labor Day is celebrated in early September, when no lily of the valley flowers can be found (they are strictly spring-blooming). A few areas in both countries have maintained certain 1st-of-May traditions from the old May Day festivals of Europe, but they mostly involve dancing around a maypole or Morris dancing. After all, in most areas in North America, the lily of the valley doesn’t bloom on May 1st, but later in May or even in June.
Also, North American gardeners tend to be a bit leery of lily of the valley. Although it is a pretty enough groundcover and the flowers are charming, it is also quite invasive and very hard to control. And who wants to release yet another invasive plant in their home turf?
Finally, lily of the valley is a toxic plant, in fact, one of the most poisonous of all garden plants, and nowadays, offering a toxic plant as a gift or even growing one tends to be frowned upon.
So, I’ll wish happy May Day, Labor Day or Fête du muguet to my European readers, then I’ll get back to trying to root the #$*@*&#$ thing out of my garden.
Gosh, who knew there would be so much to say about the mayflower?