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Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
An excellent example of the difficulty of categorising plants which can lead to confusion about their poisonous components.
Read more about Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley, in these blog
entries (most recent first);
What decides whether a plant gets into a list of 'most poisonous'?
Convallariaceae, though it is often said to be in the Liliaceae family and, since 1998, it has been included in the Ruscaceae family.
Meaning of the Name
Song of Solomon, chapter 2, verse 1, says ‘ego flos campi et lilium convallium’ which the Authorised Version of the Bible translates as ‘I am the Rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys’. Liliuim candidum, the Madonna lily, is believed to the plant referred to but, in the north, the Convallaria majalis is believed to have been substituted. There is no mention of the plant in Pliny, Turner or Gerard so it may be of more recent discovery.
The possibility exists that its name, meaning valley, is no more than a reference to the steep slope of the leaves forming a valley when paired.
Is usually said to mean ‘flowering in May’ after the Latin ‘Maius’ for the month of May. Majalis, however, is a rarely used Latin insult meaning ‘castrated hog’ and might refer to the ball-like shape of the flowers. The name ‘Fundulus majalis’ for an American minnow called the ‘Mayfish’ suggests the less interesting derivation is correct.
Common Names and Synonyms
lily of the valley, May lily.
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
The plant contains three glycosides; convallarin, convallamarin, and convallotoxin. Convallotoxin is one of the most active natural substances affecting the heart. It causes irregular, slow pulse rates and can cause heart failure. In addition, the plant contains saponins which cause gastrointestinal poisoning.
In spite of its high toxicity there is only one recorded case of poisoning where, in 1989, a family of four ate the bulbs thinking they were part of the onion family. The paper reporting this case talks of 'digitalis-like toxicity'.
The alleged poisoning of a three year old, in 1981, from drinking water from a vase which had contained Convallaria majalis, has not been confirmed by experimentation.
A 1996 paper found that suspected Convallaria majalis poisoning was one of the top three causes of hospital admissions for suspected plant poisoning in a five year period in Finland. It is said, however, that of the 71 total hospital admissions for all plants only 11% were confirmed as plant poisoning.
Folklore and Facts
Anyone planting a bed of lily of the valley will be dead within twelve months.
John Gerard recommends it because it restores speech to those who have the ‘dumb palsy’ and is a treatment for gout. The flowers, put in a sealed glass jar and set in an anthill for a month, will yield a liquor which is an excellent ointment for treating gout.