How to Avoid Mistaking Lily-of-the-Valley for Ramsons

by Paul Kirtley

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Lily-of-the-Valley, Convallaria majalis

Lily-of-the-Valley, Convallaria majalis. Photo: Paul Kirtley

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.

A swathe of Allium ursinum, Ramsons

A colony of Ramsons, Allium ursinum. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

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.

The leaves of Convallaria majalis, Lily-of-the-Valley, and Allium ursinum, Ramsons laid next to each other

Leaves of Convallaria majalis, Lily-of-the-Valley (left), and Allium ursinum, Ramsons (right). Photo: Paul Kirtley.

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.

The flowers of Convallaria majalis, Lily-of-the-Valley, and Allium ursinum, Ramsons

The flowers of Lily-of-the-Valley, Convallaria majalis, (left) and Ramsons, Allium ursinum, (right). Photos: Paul Kirtley.

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:

Comparison of the leaf arrangement of Lily-of-the-Valley, and Ramsons

Compare the leaf arrangement of Lily-of-the-Valley (left) and Ramsons (right). Lily-of-the-Valley has two or three leaves per plant on a stem whereas Ramsons leaves all emanate singly at the base of the plant. Photo: Paul

Also, on close inspection, the structure of the leaves is different:

Close-up comparison of the structure of Lily-of-the-Valley and Ramsons leaves

A close-up of the underside of the leaves of Lily-of-the-Valley (left) and Ramsons (right) shows a difference in structure and surface texture of the leaves. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

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.

Disclaimer

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!

Recommended Books for Further Reading

    

Related Articles on Paul Kirtley’s Blog

Foraging for Early Spring Greens: Some to Eat, Some to Avoid

Conopodium majus: Pignuts and How to Forage for them

Primrose, Primula vulgaris: Wild food?

Common Dog-violet, Viola riviniana

Greater Stitchwort, Stellaria Holostea

 

 

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

 

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Duane

Cheers Paul
I always go of the smell with wild garlic, but its good to know the other differences to look for :)
Take Care
Duane

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Duane,

Yep smell is the key one for me too but having additional knowledge is no bad thing :)

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Darren Roberts

Excellent article Paul,quite ironic really, as today i was explaining the difference in both plants to a work colleague whilst we were waiting in traffic at some roadworks with woodland on both sides after he spotted what he thought was Lily-of-the-Valley. You have some good pictures too,i will forward this article to him for future reference.
I have both of these plants growing in my own garden,although more Ramsons than Lily-of-the-Valley. Thanks.
Regards

Darren

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Darren,

That’s a coincidence! Good to hear you are already clued-up on these plants :)

Thanks for sharing my article with others too.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Chad

Good stuff, thanks for sharing Paul. Hopefully this will save somebody a traumatic experience!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Chad,

Let’s hope so! The mistake of confusing the two has certainly been made in the past. I wonder, with more people becoming interested in foraging for wild foods, that it may be made more often in the future. I think part of the issue is that many foragers don’t realise there is a poisonous look-alike. Just this knowledge is enough for people to double-check what they are picking. Let’s hope this article helps a few out.

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Paolo

Excellent article Paul, as alway great pictures.
The last one (the detail of the two leaves) is, in my opinion, the best to avoid mistakes.

Cheers,
Paolo

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Paolo,

Thanks for your feedback – glad you like the photos. I really enjoy taking them :)

Detail is indeed often important in plant ID.

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Rody Klop

I was yesterday in a TV show Z@pp Live for kids about wildfood, to show what you can eat. That day we went to a small forrest to look for some plants. This forrest was full of lily of the valley. The flowers, grain of the leaves and the smell are very good indicators, which I knew and showed to the producer of this program.

Also when ramsons have flowers, the leaves are better not picked/eaten too much, then they are lightly poisinous and can cause diarrhea or headache. The flowers are eadible though. Ramsons does have some nice medical uses.

I prepared stingingnettle-spinach, made dandelionjelly, a dandelionsalad, fried chicken of the woods and ramsons-butter. Which was found in that forrest.

Good article by the way. :-)

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Rody,

Interesting information.

I’ve never seen or heard of anyone having problems after eating Ramsons. It’s true that the plants contain various disulphides and other related compounds that act to break down red blood cells. But this is also true of cultivated onions.

According to my references, there are only reported rare cases of human poisoning, with consequent anaemia, jaundice and diarrhoea from eating large quantities of cultivated onions over long periods of time. Indeed TSO’s Poisonous Plants and Fungi: An Illustrated Guide states “Human poisoning has not been reported after eating any wild Allium species”.

I’d be very interested to know the source of your information on Ramson toxicity. Do you have a link to the research or study?

Thanks,

Paul

Reply

Rody Klop

In dutch there are many references, but nobody names the toxicity. After some search I found the reason in a document. The reason why the plant lifts the toxicity-level has a connection with the protection not to be eaten by animals or insects, while they have flowers. So the plant can produce its seeds.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Rody,

Interesting. Please could you provide the title and ISBN for some of the Dutch references. Also the title of the scientific paper you refer to would be much appreciated.

Thanks!

Paul

Reply

Steve

Well timed reminder Paul. I’m about to make some Wild Garlic Pesto http://bit.ly/INFWFZ I had some fresh Ransoms leaves in a salad with garlic bread (made with same Ransoms) and dressed with the flowers. I’ve no idea what anyone else thought the next day but at the time it was wonderful:-)

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Steve,

Thanks for sharing the Wild Garlic Pesto recipe. I’ll have to try that myself – did yours work out OK?

I think as long as everyone has the same amount of ramsons the night before, the morning after is not a problem… :)

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Churl

as Spock would say: Fascinating !

Reply

Paul Kirtley

And logical :)

Reply

Bean

Excellent article again Paul

Your pictures are very clear and really show up the differences between the plants.
I like others have always trusted my nose to spot find the Ransoms, but knowledge is king so more knowledge will cause far less harm.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Bean,

True, you can’t have too much knowledge.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

caroline

Dear Paul,

You asked to be informed where these plants grow near your readers.

Ramsons grow in parks, roadsides around Amsterdam (Netherlands). They also grow in the plucks of forrest in the dune-area of The Netherlands (from Castricum to Scheveningen). It is here the lily-of-the-valley also grows.
I think ramsoms are technically protected here. In the dunes area they certainly are since the area’s I refer to are nature reserves. You are not allowed to pick anything there, strictly.
I’d say it is one of my most favorite wild edible plants.
If unavailable, Jack-by-the-hedge will do ( look-zonder-look)

Lily-of-the-valley fact: In France bushels of the flower are given to mothers on Motherday traditionally.
In dutch:
Ramsoms = Daslook
Lily of the valley= Lelietje van dalen

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Caroline,

Thanks for adding local information on how and where the two plants grow near you.

What are the literal translations of the Dutch names for the plants? It’s always nice to know. For instance, the common name for Ramsons in German translates to Bear Garlic, which corresponds withe the plant’s scientific name, Allium ursinum.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Rody Klop

Daslook or berenlook (beerlook) is the dutch name. Dutch wikipedia has the reference that ramsoms are slightly poisionous when the have flowers (you asked me about references before) Some more references:
(Dutch)
http://ecolonie.org/eco/nl/meewerken/projecten_en_ideen/plant_van_de_maand_daslook_-.php
http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daslook
http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cruydeboeck (old dutch refenrence about different usefull plants)

The other link from was a student end-study and not available anymore… About protection plant when they blossom or produce seeds. If I find it again I will send it by email.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Rody!

That’s very helpful. Thank you :)

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Jeremiah

Nice post, glad amateurs won’t be poisoning themselves if they read this!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Jeremiah!

Reply

Dave Moulds

Hi Paul

only just got around to reading this article but i will say i have the Lily-of-the-valley in my back garden.
and id say remembering from childhood days that both are common around the south Yorkshire area.

cheers

Dave

Reply

Nige

Hi Paul, great article! I’ve seen both lilly of the Valley and Ramsons growing in close proximity to each other in woodland along a favourite canal paddle. The smell of the Ramsons being unmistakable, growing so close together like they were however it would be quite easy for mistakes to be made. Eyes opened a little more thanks to your article!….Cheers Nige.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Nige,

It seems quite a while since the Ramsons were out this year. Glad you enjoyed the article and I hope it’ll be useful to you in future…

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Frederica

I have seen lily of the valley growing amongst the ransoms on the side of the path in Southwest London which is slightly alarming. I found this article very reassuring, but if one is crushing leaves as they are picked, the smell of garlic will be on your hands, and you could then crush a lily of the valley leaf and think it alright. I think I will double check that each leaf is single!

Reply

Karen C

Further to Caroline’s message above, not only is lily-of-the-valley (muguets) traditionally given in France on Mother’s Day, you can’t get moved for people selling it in the streets that week – I wonder whether the people buying them for children to give to their mothers know of the potential effects? Here, mum, please accept this gift of poisonous plants :)

Reply

Galya

Thank You for the post, Paul .It is always so nice to learn more about some plants especially if they are so similar. We have it both /Al.Ursinum & Conv.Majalis/ here in Bulgaria . The information and pictures also were very useful for me.
Thank you.Greetings from Bulgaria.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

You’re very welcome Galya.

Reply

Felix

Hi,

Great article.
You mentioned that Lily of the Valley could be found nr Saint Leonards. Do you know where exactly (ie. woodlands) or of any other places around Sussex where it is known to grow.

Thanks

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Felix,

Thanks for your message.

In answer to your question, I think you’ll find the following links useful:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Leonard%27s_Forest

http://www.sos.org.uk/sussex-sites/detail/St-Leonards-Lily-Beds/onecat/Root/47/all_items.html

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Felix

I forgot to mention that I live near the downs and havn’t seen any around those hills.

Reply

Jo

Hi,
great article! I stumbled across this after a walk through a private wood on my boss’s land yesterday! The wood is usually full of blubells at this time of year but yesterday we were stunned to see a banket of what appears to be wild garlic. It is everywhere the eye can see and seems to be in true abundance this year! On close inspecti0n there are certainly a few Lily of The Valley dotted throughout. I’m so glad i found this article before picking some for consumption. We are in Worcestershire by the way for the L.O.T.V sightings

Reply

Ben Fitch

Hi Paul,
I have Lily of the Valley in my garden. I saved it from destruction when laying some decking. Planted it out in a bed. I have not seen it flower since I moved it, but it does grow up every year. Great blog and congrats on the awards at the Bushcraft Show.

Many Thanks

Reply

Nobby Hall

Smell is what I use to differentiate these two beasties. Wild garlic does exactly what it says on the tin. Lily of the Valley smells beautiful in bloom. We’ve just had Helston Flora down here where it’s worn by people and to decorate garlands you can’t mistake the smell. Put some in your boots after a bit of a yomp?

Reply

dee

I have an entire flower bed of lilly of the valley that was already in place when I purchased my home last year. This summer the leaves stayed curled up and not open. What would cause this?

Reply

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