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Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley

Summary

An excellent example of the difficulty of categorising plants which can lead to confusion about their poisonous components.

Blog Entries

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'?

Family

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

Convallaria
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.
 
majalis
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.

Incidents

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.

IMPORTANT NOTE

The POISON GARDEN website is not connected with Alnwick Garden Enterprises Ltd and/or The Alnwick Garden Trust.

 

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Introduction to the A to Z section
Abrus precatorius, rosary pea
Aconitum lycoctonum, wolfsbane
Aconitum napellus, monkshood
Actaea racemosa, black cohosh
Actaea spicata, baneberry
Aesculus hippocastanum, horse chestnut
Amanita muscaria, fly agaric
Aquilegia atrata, columbine
Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort
Artemisia absinthium, wormwood
Arum italicum, Italian cuckoopint
Arum maculatum, cuckoopint
Aspergillus fumigatus
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
Brugmansia suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Bryonia dioica, bryony
Buxus sempervirens, common box
Camellia sinensis, tea
Cannabis sativa, marijuana
Catha edulis, khat
Chelidonium majus, greater celandine
Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh
Claviceps purpurea, ergot
Clematis vitalba, old man's beard
Colchicum autumnale, naked ladies
Conium maculatum, poison hemlock
Convallaria majalis, lily of the valley
Cynoglossum officinale, hound’s tongue
Daphne mezereon, spurge olive
Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
Datura suaveolens, angel's trumpet
Delphinium, larkspur
Digitalis spp., foxglove
Dracunculus vulgaris, dragon arum
Echium vulgare, viper’s bugloss
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite
Erythroxylum coca, cocaine
Euonymus europaeus, spindle tree
Euphorbia x martinii, red spurge
Euphorbia pulcherrima, poinsettia
Fritillaria spp., fritillary
Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop
Hedera helix, common ivy
Helleborus spp., hellebore
Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed
Hyacinthoides non-scripta, bluebell
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Ilex aquifolium, holly
Jacobaea vulgaris, ragwort
Juniperus communis, common juniper
Laburnum anagyroides, laburnum
Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce
Leucojum aestivum, snowflake
Lithospermum officinale, gromwell
Lolium temulentum, darnel
Malus 'John Downie', crab apple
Mandragora officinarum, mandrake
Mercurialis perennis, dog’s mercury
Narcissus, daffodil
Nepeta faassenii, catmint
Nerium oleander, oleander
Nicotiana sylvestris, tobacco
Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort
Papaver somniferum, opium poppy
Pastinaca sativa, parsnip
Polygonatum odoratum, angular Solomon's seal
Prunus laurocerasus, cherry laurel
Pulsatilla vulgaris, pasque flower
Ranunculus acris, meadow buttercup
Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb
Rhododendron spp.
Rhus radicans, poison ivy
Ricinus communis, castor oil plant
Rosmarinus officinalis, rosemary
Rumex obtusifolius, broad-leaved dock
Ruta graveolens, rue
Salix alba, white willow
Salvia divinorum, sage
Scutellaria laterifolia, Virginian skullcap
Senecio jacobaea, ragwort
Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade
Solanum melongena, aubergine
Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut
Symphoricarpos albus, snowberry
Symphytum spp., comfrey
Taxus baccata, yew
Toxicodendron radicans, poison ivy
Thevetia peruviana, yellow oleander
Urtica dioica, stinging nettle
Veratrum album, white hellebore
Verbascum olympicum, Greek mullein
Vinca major, greater periwinkle
Viscum album, mistletoe
Vitex agnus-castus, chaste tree