Flowers, perhaps more than any other part of the natural world, are fascinating because of the many layers of meaning people have shrouded them in throughout history.
There is a whole sub-category of etiquette surrounding which flowers are appropriate to give at what times, and to whom. The unending rules surrounding something so simple as a flower can be dizzying.
Another aspect of flower lore concerns the designated flowers for each month of the year. May’s official flower is the lily of the valley, a lovely plant consisting of a stem covered in delicate little “bells” hanging downward. Their unique shape led them to be called “fairy bells” in Celtic cultures. It was believed that only fairies could hear them ring.
The flower’s association with the month of May comes in part from a bit of traditional lore that nightingales won’t sing until the lily of the valley blooms each May.
The plant takes its name common from a passage in the Biblical Song of Solomon, which reads, “I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley.” It was probably named because it tends to grow in valleys.
This is not the flower’s only religious association. A popular nickname for lily of the valley is “Our Lady’s Tears.” The plant’s downcast posture reminds some of teardrops, in the same way a weeping willow’s sweeping branches do. Those of a poetic mindset say the plant is a reminder of the Virgin Mary’s tears at the foot of the cross. Others say the tears were Eve’s, after being cast out of Eden.
If you were to eat a lily of the valley, the tears would likely be yours, because the plant is highly toxic. Like many toxins in nature, the lily of the valley also has medicinal properties, and extracts of the plant have been used to treat heart disease.
It’s probably best to leave the treatment to the doctors, though, and just enjoy this beautiful flower while it lasts. Happy May!