If your garden is largely shaded like mine, then I’m willing to bet you’ve at least thought about planting some lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). These woodland perennials are charming and easy to grow — almost to the point of nuisance — anywhere that is cool, damp, and shady.
Don’t let the common name fool you. Lily of the Valley is not a ‘true’ lily but a unique member of the asparagus family! Once established, the lily of the valley uses seeds and modified stems called rhizomes to form lush colonies.
In this article, I’m excited to tell you about all about lily of the valley growth stages and offer tips and tricks for growing this lovely ground cover.
How to Grow Lily of the Valley
Lily of the valley naturally grows in shaded forests throughout Europe, though it has been introduced to North America and other regions. Its key strength is being able to grow where many other plants will not! Its petite stature (and relatively compact root system) means it can tuck itself between large tree roots and other obstacles.
As I mentioned, Lily of the Valley loves shade. It can tolerate some direct morning light but won’t fare well in full sun exposure throughout the day. Also, the warmer your climate, the shadier the conditions this flower prefers.
Lily of the Valley enjoys rich, well-draining soil. It tolerates damp growing conditions but will suffer if the soil is always soggy. Fertilizer and other soil amendments are rarely necessary when growing lilies in the valley.
This spring bloomer likes mild temperatures of 60 to 70°F. Heat tends to kill off the top growth, so planting your lily of the valley in deep shade can prolong its annual display. New leaves and buds will sprout the following spring.
Few gardeners opt to grow lilies of the valley in containers — it’s better suited to life in the ground. However, this is an option if you’re concerned about lily of the valley’s potentially invasive nature. Planting in a large pot or raised bed can prevent the rhizomes from spreading out of control.
Alternatively, you can reduce unwanted growth by installing landscape borders around your lily of the valley patch.
Lily of the Valley Growth Rate
Lily of the valley is a small perennial that only reaches 6 to 12 inches tall at most. Plants die back to the ground each year and won’t get any taller than this, no matter how many years pass.
The main way the lily of the valley gets bigger is by spreading via its underground rhizomes. This can happen quickly if the plants are healthy and have room to spread. Just a few lilies of the valley plants can form a sizable colony within only a couple of years. You may need to divide the plants as often as every two years.
Growth Stages of Lily of the Valley
Lily of the valley started from seed may not bloom for 2 to 3 years. However, once the plant matures and flowers for the first time, it will return year after year for a decade or more!
Gardeners today can select from numerous lily of the valley cultivars boasting flowers of different sizes, shapes, and colors. These cultivars are similar to the standard variety and will follow the same basic life cycle.
1. Seed Germination
Lily of the Valley produces bright red berries that contain small seeds. These seeds can be planted to create new plants — genetic offspring of the parent plants.
Like many other early bloomers, lily of the valley seeds require cold stratification to sprout. In nature, this process occurs as the seeds overwinter before germinating the following spring. When we plant lilies of the valley ourselves, however, we often need to mimic this process by placing the seeds in a fridge or similar environment for several months.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the lily of the valley is relatively unique because its seeds possess a sort of double dormancy. For the best germination, seeds must go through two cold periods separated by a period of warmth (i.e., a winter, a summer, and another winter).
Moving on from cold stratification, lily of the valley seeds require moisture and specific soil temperatures to sprout. I’m not 100% sure what the minimum temperature is for germination to begin, but mature lily of the valley plants grow when average temperatures are between 60 and 70°F.
The seed imbibes water from the soil through the tough outer coating. Once it absorbs enough moisture, cells inside the seed embryo start rapidly dividing. These cells will eventually break through the seed coat and develop into a young lily of the valley seedling.
It can take 60 days to a full year for lily of the valley seeds to sprout.
A single lily of the valley seed contains many important structures. Some noteworthy structures include the radicle, cotyledon, epicotyl, and coleoptile.
The radicle is the seedling’s first root and the very first part of the plant to break free of the seed coat. It will eventually develop into the plant’s fibrous root system.
Cotyledons are seed leaves that form within the embryo before sprouting. Lily of the Valley is classified as a monocot with just one cotyledon. Lily of the valley displays ‘hypogeal’ germination, meaning that its cotyledon grows above ground rather than below the soil’s surface.
Next, we have the epicotyl and coleoptile. These are the bulk of the seedlings we see above ground. The epicotyl is the young plant’s main shoot, while the coleoptile is a protective sheath covering it. Incidentally, their similar sprouting habits during the springtime make them an excellent companion plant for Hostas.
3. Vegetative Growth
Lily of the Valley leaves are sword-like with parallel veins. Mature plants have 2 or 3 leaves that form a tight whorl. The leaves grow from a very short stem that may extend less than an inch from the soil.
After the plant’s first year, all vegetative growth will die back to the ground. It will regrow the following spring.
Once established, lilies of the valley bloom every spring for 3 to 4 weeks on average. The flowers typically appear 30 to 60 days after emergence.
The trademark bell-shaped flowers emerge on thin, arching stems from the center of the leaves. In my experience, the size and number of flowers correlate with the plant’s age and health.
Lily of the Valley flowers are small but quite fragrant. They are very popular with bees and other classic garden pollinators.
5. Rhizome Development
Mature plants produce modified, underground stems called rhizomes during the flowering and fruiting stages. Rhizomes allow lily of the valley to spread and form colonies without relying solely on seed dispersal.
These rhizomes also make propagating the lily of the valley super easy! Dig up extra plants toward the end of the growing season and transplant where you want them.
Since the lily of the valley usually produces new rhizomes yearly, it’s best to thin and divide colonies regularly.
6. Fruit Production
You might be surprised to learn that the lily of the valley bears fruit. Keep in mind, however, that the berries are poisonous. Wild birds are some of the only animals that can safely consume them.
After pollination, the flowers fade and give way to small green berries. The berries will ripen throughout summer and into fall. I find that the birds pick off the berries in my garden within just a few days of turning red.
When to Cut Lily of the Valley Flowers
Though small, lily of the valley flowers make lovely additions to bouquets and cut floral arrangements. Cut flower stems when about one-quarter of the buds have opened for maximum longevity.
Note that all parts of the lily of the valley are toxic. While the flowers are fragrant and attractive, they’re best left in the garden if you have pets or curious small children in the house.
If you have enjoyed this article, you may also love Oats Growth Stages too.
FAQs Growing Lily of the Valley
How long does the lily of the valley take to grow?
If you’re planting lilies of the valley from rhizomes, it usually takes about two years for the plants to flower for the first time. Lily of the valley grown from seed can take three years or more to mature and flower.
What does Lily of the Valley look like coming up?
Lily of the Valley is hard to differentiate from hostas and other shade-loving perennials in early spring. Watch for small leaf sheaths coming up from the soil where you know you’ve planted lily of the valley. It then only takes a few days for the leaves to start unfurling.
- Encyclopedia Britannica Lily of the Valley Seed Dormancy
Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.