Convallaria majalis, or Lily-of-the-Valley, is a herbacious perennial plant found in woodlands in the northern hemisphere.
The leaves of C. majalis resemble Allium ursinum, the familiar wild food plant commonly known as Ramsons or Wild Garlic. Like Ramsons, Lily-of-the-Valley can form extensive colonies, covering areas of woodland floor such as at St. Leonards in Sussex.
While Ramsons, A. ursinum, are edible, Lily-of-the-Valley, C. majalis, is highly poisonous. All parts of the plant contain cardiac glycosides, as well as saponins, and the mechanism of poisoning works in a similar way to Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea.
Most cases of poisoning from Lily-of-the-Valley are due to people, especially children, eating the bright red berries the plant produces later in the year. Vomiting usually limits the absorption of the toxins but in extreme cases ingestion can cause coma or death.
There are also cases on record, however, of poisoning from the leaves of C. majalis being mistaken for the leaves of A. ursinum and added to soups or fried with other ingredients. Signs and symptoms included flushed skin, nausea, dizziness, headache, weakness, hallucinations and changes in heart rate.
In the UK Lily-of-the-Valley typically flowers in May-June, while Ramsons bloom in April-May. In other parts of Europe Lily-of-the-Valley is particularly associated with the month of May. Indeed, majalis in its scientific name means “of or belonging to May”.
When either A. ursinum or C. majalis is in flower, it is straightforward to tell the plants apart. While the flowers of both plants are white, they are easy to distinguish. Ramsons have a clustered globe of white flowers at the end of an upright stem, while Lily-of-the-Valley has drooping bell-shaped flowers arranged along a stem.
It’s only when both plants have leaves present but neither have flowers that the two look similar.
There are differences though.
First, the leaves of Ramsons emanate singly at the base of the plant, while Lily-of-the-Valley has two (or three) leaves on the same stem:
Also, on close inspection, the structure of the leaves is different:
The most obvious difference, however, is not visual; it is olfactory. That is, the leaves of Ramsons, Allium ursinum, smell strongly of garlic. The leaves of Lily-of-the-Valley, Convallaria majalis do not smell of garlic or onions at all.
So, as long as you don’t just rely on your sense of vision, you should not confuse Lily-of-the-Valley for Ramsons or other members of the Allium genus.
Engaging your sense of smell allows you to make the distinction easily: Discard any leaves that look like Ramsons but do not smell of garlic/onions when crushed.
A final note on this: Regular handling of Lily-of-the-Valley can cause dermatitis, so it would be worth washing your hands with soap and water if you do crush any these leaves to smell them.
I’d be interested to know if Lily-of-the-Valley grows near you or if you’ve seen this plant on your travels. Please let me know in the comments.
Best Practice while Foraging
Please read the BSBI’s Code of Conduct for the Conservation and Enjoyment of Wild Plants for guidance on the best practice (and UK laws) relating to foraging for wild plant foods.
This article is meant only as a guide and is largely a record of my recent forages. It is not a complete treatment of all edible plants that might be available. Nor does it provide a complete treatment of all poisonous plants that may also be present in the habitat where you find the above-mentioned plants. If you want to learn more about plant identification you should invest in some good field guides. The safest way to learn about edible wild plants is for someone who already has the knowledge to show you in person. Any foraging you do on your own is at your own risk.
The most important thing to remember when identifying wild foods is:
IF IN DOUBT, LEAVE IT OUT!
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