Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis) is blooming at this time of year. The Latin name means ‘Of the valleys’ and ‘during May’ so for those people who find Latin names awkward I hope to persuade you how logical and descriptive they are (but then I’m one of those people who loved studying Latin at school)!
The beautiful fragrant bells of Convallaria used to be quite common in the British Isles in shady woodlands. Apparently in the time of Nicholas Culpeper (who died in 1654), it was widespread on Hampstead Heath. Sadly with the removal of tree cover the plant has disappeared from there. There are still some wild populations but they are few and far between and it certainly wouldn’t be appropriate for herbalists to gather supplies from them. It’s up to us to grow it ourselves if we want a guaranteed good quality source so I’ve established some plants in a shady part of my new garden. It’ll be a few years before I can take a harvest but in the meantime I’ve found a useful source from my friend and clinic neighbour Heather who runs a busy florist shop. She uses Lily of the Valley in wedding bouquets and always has leaves left over. She was surprised when I asked if I could have them as she had no idea that they were medicinal, but she’s getting used to my herbalist ways and was delighted that they would go to good use.
In the language of flowers Lily of the Valley means ‘You’ve made my life complete’ or ‘Return of happiness’. As these are matters traditionally associated with the heart it’s interesting then that Lily of the Valley is a potent heart medicine. Legend has it that Apollo presented it to Aesclepius (the god of healing) as a gift.
Lily of the Valley contains a number of cardiac glycosides including convallatoxin, convallatoxol, convalarin and so on. The leaves and flowers have long been used as a cardiac tonic and diuretic. It has an action similar to Foxglove in that it enables the heart to beat more powerfully and slowly in the presence of less oxygen. However it differs dramatically from Foxglove in that it’s much safer and doesn’t build up to toxic levels in the body with the potential for sudden serious adverse reactions.
Lily of the Valley has a role to play in normalising arrhythmias, supporting a failing heart and treating valvular disease. Mitral stenosis, mitral regurgitation and cor pulmonale are conditions which would point to the use of this herb. Although very safe under the treatment of a registered medical herbalist it’s not a herb to be used for self treatment.
As well as it’s well documented use as a heart tonic, this herb is traditionally thought of as a remedy to restore a failing memory. Culpeper says: ‘It strengthens the brain, recruits a weak memory and makes it strong again’. When I have my own plentiful supplies I’ll have to try that – if I remember.
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