Name: Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis)
Otherwise known as: May Lily
Habitat: A perennial member of the Liliaceae, growing from a tangled rhizome to about 25cm in deciduous woodland and meadows in Europe. The plant has two spear-shaped, dark green leaves growing on the same stem and produces a one-sided raceme of drooping, white, bell-shaped flowers that are highly scented. At the end of May the flowers fade and leave a bright red berry on the stem which is very poisonous.
What does it do: The ancients knew the value of this herb and used it to treat disorders of the heart and to revive the vital spirit. Culpeper writes: ‘the syrup helps much to procure rest and to settle the brain of frantic persons by cooling the hot temperature in the head. The distilled water of the flowers is very effectual and is recommended to take freckles, spots and sunburn from the face and other parts of the body’. The head clearing effect was produced mainly by inhaling the snuff made from the dried leaf, which was also recommended for that scourge of the Georgian period, gout. Lily-of-the-Valley was extremely popular for such a toxic herb.
The plant contains cardioactive glycosides and flavanoid glycosides, which means that it increases the force of the heart, regulates the beat for distension of the ventricles, increases size and strength of the pulse, slows down a rapid feeble pulse, eliminates fluid retained in the tissue (oedema) and acts as a cardio and gastric tonic. It shares many of the chemical properties of Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). Known as the herbalist’s ‘digitalis’, it can only be given by qualified practitioners, however in Russia it is used to treat heart conditions in place of digitalis but at a lower dosage.
Its uses include treating left ventricular failure, mitral insufficiency – a defect of the mitral valve in the heart – congestive heart failure, cardiac dropsy, renal hypertension, cardiac asthma, endocarditis and Bradycardia. Quite a lot for something you only see at weddings in Cyprus.
The plant contains an essential oil which is very difficult to extract: most oil attributed to this plant is a synthetic.
The distilled flower-water is called ‘Aqua aurea’ and is an astringent and a skin whitener.