Lily of the valley is known by many names including Jacob’s Ladder, as the bell shaped flowers form a ladder shape at the top of the stem. They normally flower in May, in the UK which is why they are sometimes called May Lilies, although they have been known to flower earlier than this. Some people rather fancifully, call them Fairy Cups, as the delicate flowers could be used by fairies as cups, and some people call them Our Lady’s Tears. Their red berries are poisonous and should not be ingested. Modern medical science also warns about this plant and it should only be used under the direction of a qualified homoeopathist as an overdose can cause cardiac failure.
   Stems grow to a height of between 15 and 30 centimetres and the leaves can be 10 to 25 centimetres long. There are between 5 and 15 flowers on the stem, and these are pollinated by bees and then develop into red berries. It is native to Europe, North Asia and the eastern US.
  The most potent part of the plant is the leaf, but the flower and root are the parts mostly used especially in tisanes, to relieve fevers, and as a diuretic, a sedative and as an emetic. A root ointment has traditionally been used on burns to prevent scarring. It was used in mediaeval times instead of foxglove as it is less likely to cause poisoning, and has similar properties to digitalis found in those flowers. It is safer for the elderly with heart problems than foxglove remedies, and it has been used for cardiac problems for centuries.
   In aromatherapy the essential oil is used to lift depression and create a feeling of well-being; it is also believed to improve the cognitive processes and can, it is claimed, help counter the effects of ageing of the brain. The substance which is similar to digitalis in its effects is convallamarin, and the asparagin in the plant is responsible for its diuretic action. The bioflavonoids in the plant stimulate the arteries, and are good to lower blood pressure.
   In Culpeper’s time lilies of the valley grew on Hampstead Heath, but I doubt they can be found there now. There is a legend that comes from southern England which states that lilies of the valley grew from the blood of St. Leonard who fought a long, hard battle with a dragon in the woods at Horsham, Surrey. Another legend says that the fragrance of the flowers attracts the nightingale which finds its mate in groves and woods where the flowers bloom.
   Lilies of the valley were known to Apuleius in the 4th century AD and a Greek myth states that Apollo found the plant and gave it to the physician Aesculapius. The whole plant is gathered when the flowers are blooming and dried together with the flowers on the stalk. The plant was used for soldiers of the First World War who had come into contact with poisonous gas.
   A decoction of the flowers (½ an ounce boiled for 20 mins in a pint water) has been used for obstructions in the urinary tract and is said to be effective. The British herbalists, such as Gerard and Culpeper believed that the distilled water of the flowers, called Aqua aurea (golden water) was a cure all. Coles, writing in 1657 recommended that the flowers be steeped in new wine for a month and then distilled three times, as the ensuing water was “more precious then gold” especially for apoplexy especially if mixed with six “grains of Pepper and a little Lavender water”; this was supposed to be effective for a month.
   Prior to that in 1560 Dodoens said that this same water “doth strengthen the Memorie and comforteth the Harte.” Gerard had yet another way of making lily of the valley water: “a glasse being filled with the flowers of May Lilies and set in an Ant Hill with the mouth close stopped for a month’s space and then taken out, ye shall find a liquor in the glass which being outwardly applied, helps the gout very much.” This was also used externally for rheumatism and sprains. The bruised root was boiled in wine and used in cases of fever.
  Culpeper of course, had something to say about these flowers, and the last word goes to him.
“It without doubt strengthens the brain and renovates a weak memory. The distilled water dropped into the eyes helps inflammation thereof. The spirit of the flowers distilled in wine, restoreth lost speech. Helps the palsy, is extremely good in the apoplexy, comforteth the heart and vital spirits.”

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