Fête du muguet

I’ve been around long enough not to be surprised, but I’m still delighted at how things bloom every year like clockwork.  It is now May and the lilies of the valley are opening their little bell-shaped flowers right on schedule.  In France, May 1st is the Fête du Muguet, when one gives bouquets of lily of the valley to loved ones to wish them happiness and health.  It is a tradition that dates back to King Charles IX who in 1561 gave lilies of the valley to all the ladies of his court.   What a romantically French custom!  And to encourage the custom, there are no taxes on flower sales on May 1 and no license is needed to sell them.

Cynical Me wonders if Charles gave the flowers because he knew the intoxicating aroma would please the ladies or if one of his gardeners talked him into it as a way to thin out the out-of-control plant.  Could that explain the license-free sale of the flower when it comes into bloom?  And did Charles know that every part of the plant is toxic?  Perhaps there was more to court intrigue than merely giving bouquets of flowers?

A few years ago I went foraging in the woods for free plants and dug up some lily of the valley from the woods near the old Maywood house.  It’s difficult to find things that are happy with as much shade as we have, so I was glad to find something I could plant on the north side of our log home.  I planted a modest line of flowers in the periwinkle bed and hoped for a clump to thrive.  Within a couple of years the rhizomes were running all over the place and competing with the periwinkle–no small feat!  Thinking I’d just relocate them, I grabbed a shovel to dig them up.  Those rhizomes are tough little buggers!  I ran upstairs to the computer and googled “Lily of the valley, invasive plant.”  Oh la la. Or as they say in France when it’s a real catastrophe: oh la la la la la la.                                    

When lily of the valley is happy in a location, it is very happy, and it thrives to the extent that it can become invasive.  The runners go zipping along underground spreading as far as happy little conditions will let them.  I can tell you that the north side of my house presents very happy conditions.

So it is May 1st.  I have taken my great-grandmother’s delicately etched  antique juice glasses from the china cabinet and filled them with bunches of the sweet smelling bells. My loved ones are welcome to a bouquet.  Just bring your own juice glass–and a shovel.

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