Botany’s prima donna
WHILE these days many of our flowers can be raised successfully in glasshouses, ensuring that we can indulge during most months of the year, a bride who must have lily-of-the-valley in her bouquet will need to choose a spring wedding date. Among the most coveted of the spring blooms, lilyof-the-valley ( Convallaria majalis), is traditionally used in bridal bouquets as it symbolises purity and humility.
This most elegant of white flowering lilies is something of a botanical prima donna, however, and is not always easy to grow. A woodland plant native to several countries in the northern hemisphere, this delicate, fragile-looking treasure will disappoint if you don’t garden in a cold climate. They demand rich soil and like to be left undisturbed, to naturalise in dappled shade. In the conditions they love, lily-of-the-valley will colonise thickly, spreading underground by rhizomes, sending up pleated, bright green leaves each spring and short spires of the tiny white bells with their magical fragrance.
If you, too, have no luck with the covetable lily-of-the-valley, try planting a brick; they love the warmth that the brick attracts and holds. So you’ll find them massing out in cold climate gardens where they are growing close to a wall, which will have stored heat from the warmer months while the air temperature drops.
Among the few varieties that have been bred, collectors will love the pink Convallaria majalis var. rosea, the double flowering C. m. ‘Flore Pleno’ and the variety with variegated foliage, although these do not grow as strongly as the species. And take care: while the lily-of-the-valley may look innocent, the berries that form if you can resist picking the blooms are poisonous, as are all parts of the plant.
May Day is celebrated in many countries, and takes on different meanings in different cultures. In France it is celebrated with lily-of-the-valley, which has been a symbol of luck since Charles IX was presented with the bloom in 1561. If you are ever in France on May 1, you will find this lovely bloom being sold on street corners and in markets. Could there be a more charming floral festival?
You can say anything with flowers. From ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans to the English of Edwardian and Victorian times, all countries and cultures attach important meanings to flowers. They speak clearly of love and friendship, say thank you or offer sympathy.
While lily-of-the-valley, along with the bluebell, signifies humility, white roses also symbolise purity, red roses passion; the beautiful, goblet-shaped blooms of the magnolia promise sweetness and beauty. Some cultures believe that lavender warns of jealousy, that narcissus exposes egotism and that calla lilies should only be used at funerals.
If single blooms each hold certain meanings, the tussie mussie is surely a complete conversation: a romantic poem, a love letter. Popular in England since the reign of Elizabeth I, the tussie mussie was carried into court by judges in Victorian times, apparently to ward off evil spirits and disease. They were held also to combat the smell of unclean streets.
This posy of herbs and flowers is easy to make. The first task is to choose a ‘‘hero’’ bloom, which could be a perfect rose or a clutch of lily-of-the-valley. Next, arrange ‘‘lesser’’ flowers such as violets or lavender, and then the blossom and foliage of herbs in a circular fashion around the centre. Finish with a swirl of foliage. Tie it all together with an elastic band, add a paper or lace frill, and hide your workings with a pretty ribbon: the perfect token of affection and a gift that is sure to be appreciated. RENMARK based David Ruston is renowned as a rose grower and lecturer. His flower arranging demonstrations, accompanied by his erudite but supremely entertaining banter, are legendary, as is his generosity. He has received just about every award possible from the rose industry and his statue has been erected in his home town. He has now released a book of his writings and musings on flower arranging, on picking and keeping flowers and on their history. The index contains a fairly comprehensive list of rose varieties, along with excellent descriptions. The book is also full of the horticultural world’s personalities. A Life with Roses is published by Rosenberg ($49.95).
It’s time to sow seeds of summer vegies such as tomatoes, if you can protect them under glass or plastic. Perhaps share packets of seed with friends, or swap seedlings. Or join a community garden, a great way to make friends and to break down language and cultural barriers. Follow daily garden tips and tricks on twitter.com/hollykerforsyth. Holly Kerr Forsyth’s new book, Seasons in My House and Garden, is out now.