[In Paris] the palm of popularity must be given to the lily of the valley—the muguet des bois.
What the forget-me-not is to the German Gretchen, the muguet des bois (the wild lily of the valley) is to the Paris grisette, and thus it has been for untold generations. The first of May is known as the Fête du Muguet, and on that day, not only is it traditional for children to make presents of bunches of wild lilies of the valley to their elder brothers and sisters—the flower seems to be dedicated to youth—but in the streets surrounding the opera-house, where all the big dressmakers are, you will see at luncheon-hour troops of the young girl apprentices wearing bunches of muguet in their simple bodices. The muguet brings luck, and it appeals more than any other flower to the humble little Parisienne’s sense of poetry, this delicate spike with its double row of little milk-white bells, its broad tapering leaf, and its peculiarly evocative scent. No doubt she feels that in a sense it reflects herself. Is not her life just such another ringing of the changes on a chime of little silver bells, whose flash and tinkle last for the brief space of a spring season? She has the same native wildness, and simple unconscious elegance. To start forth on a bright Sunday morning for one of the woods near Paris, and pick muguet, is her ideal of a holiday excursion.
“En cherchant du muguet,
Du muguet dans la clairière;
En cherchant du muguet,
Du muguet d-a-ans l-a-a f-ô-r-e-t!”
[In search of the lily of the valley,
the lily in the clearing,
in search of the lily of the valley,
the lily of the valley in the forest!]
she sings, and on her way back she pets her lilies of the valley as if they were human beings: “Oh, the beautiful muguet, how sweetly it smells!” Elaborate are her plans for disposing of it. One large bouquet will remain in her room for at least a week, reminding her every moment of the delightful day she has spent. A few sprays will be given to the concierge, or janitor, whose good graces are to be cultivated; while the remainder will go to grand maman, who will not fail to be tearfully reminded thereby of her own sylvan excursions in search of muguet in those far-off days when there were hardly any railways, and it was half a day’s journey to the woods at Meudon.
According to the herbalists, the petals of the lily of the valley contain a toxic substance, which, like digitalis, has a directly stimulating effect upon the heart. Perhaps this may account, by some subtle process of sentimental telepathy or suggestion, for the charm which the muguet so potently exercises over the heart of those essentially Parisian little beings, all made up of nerves, gaiety, and emotions, the midinette of the dress-making atelier, and the grisette of the Latin Quarter. The street-cry, “Fleurissez-vous, mesdames: voila le muguet!” (Beflower yourselves, ladies: behold the lily of the valley!), followed by, “Du muguet! Achetez du muguet! Du bon muguet parfume!” (Lilies of the valley! Buy the lilies of the valley! Fine scented lilies of the valley!), is one of the oldest in Paris. The muguet harvest is as much a godsend to the pariahs of the Paris pavement as is the hop-picking in Kent to the submerged tenth of the London East End. The May morning has hardly dawned before a procession of ragged, footsore tramps comes streaming into the city from the neighbouring woods, loaded with muguet. On May Day waggon-loads of muguet arrive by train. The flowers are picked when they are still in the earliest bud, for the little Parisian lady likes to see them open out under her own eyes, and so have the illusion that their lives are linked with hers. In some of the great forests round Paris it is forbidden to pick the muguet on pain of a fine; for the pheasants are laying at this season, and to steal the eggs on the pretence of looking for lilies of the valley is a common trick with the villagers.
Sensations of Paris, Rowland Strong, 1912: pp. 233-236
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: To-day is May Day and instead of the cliches about May Queens and the famously bad weather of the holiday, Mrs Daffodil thought she would post instead about the French holiday of La Fête du Muguet, the feast of the lily of the valley. This is said to have had its origins with the Valois King Charles IX when he was presented with a bunch of lilies in 1561 as a porte-bonheur. Charmed, he began giving the ladies of the court lilies on 1 May. Mrs Daffodil suggests that lilies of the valley brought the King himself scant luck: his reign was marred by the French Wars of Religion and the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
In the language of flowers, lilies of the valley mean love, luck, and the return of happiness. They are a favourite of Royal brides: Queen Victoria, Grace Kelly and Catherine Middleton all carried bouquets of lily of the valley.
Despite its name, the lily of the valley is actually a member of the Asparagaceae family. However, you would not dare to enjoy the flower, blanched, with hollandaise sauce. Lilies of the valley are extraordinarily toxic if ingested. This fact may explain the curious Devonshire superstition that it is unlucky to plant a bed of lilies of the valley; the person doing so is likely to die within the next twelve months.
Mrs Daffodil wishes her readers a very happy and clement May Day.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.