For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
Lily-of-the-valley and hawthorn are the May birth flowers. Learn all about history, meanings, symbolism, and growing tips for this dainty flower and flowering shrub, which bloom in May!
What Are the May Birth Flowers?
Lily-of-the-valley, with its small, dainty, bell-shaped white flowers, is a perennial groundcover that spreads aggressively given the right conditions. These flowers represent sweetness and purity.
Hawthorns are flowering shrubs in the rose family with flowers that bloom in May in small white, red, or pink clusters. Small berries, called haws, sprout after the flowers. The hawthorn is a longstanding symbol of hope.
Also referred to as Our Lady’s Tears, May lily, and May bells, lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) is not actually a lily but rather a member of the asparagus family, Asparagaceae. Native to Eurasia, lily-of-the-valley has become naturalized in North America, having been planted in home gardens for its simple foliage and lovely flowers.
It produces pendulous, bell-shaped white flowers with a strong, sweet smell. It can also produce pink or purple blossoms.
In ancient astrology, lily-of-the-valley was said to be protected by the son of the goddess Maia. In Greek mythology, that son was Hermes, for the Romans, it was Mercury.
According to legend, lily-of-the-valley fell in love with the song of the nightingale and only bloomed when the bird returned to the woods in May.
It is also believed that Apollo created the groundcover flower for nymphs to walk on.
This flower has been associated with motherhood, sweetness, purity, and humility. It signifies a return to happiness, likely due to its time of bloom and the anticipation of summer.
In Christian lore, lily-of-the-valley came to be, from Eve’s tears after she was expelled from the Garden of Eden. It has also been said that lily-of-the-valley sprouted from the tears of Mary at the site of Christ’s crucifixion.
Lily-of-the Valley in History
In the 1500s, King Charles IX was gifted lily-of-the-valley for good luck on May Day, and each year following, he continued the tradition of gifting the flowers for luck.
In France, the tradition of gifting lily-of-the-valley continues as a symbol of good luck.
In Serbia, lily-of-the-valley is picked on St. George’s feast day, and people decorate their homes with the flowers to bring about good luck and prosperity.
The flower is mentioned numerous times in the bible and has also been associated with Christ’s second coming.
Thomas Jefferson recorded the flower in a list of hardy perennials that grew at his Monticello home.
Due to its sweet fragrance, lily-of-the-valley is a popular choice for wedding bouquets. In Holland, newlyweds have been known to plant lily-of-the-valley in their garden to bring about luck in their marriage. The flowers were also part of the bridal bouquets of Princess Diana and Kate Middleton.
In Helston, England, the lily-of-the-valley is worn during the Furry Dance, a centuries-old celebration observed on May 8 each year.
Lily-of-the-valley is the national flower of Finland.
Lily-of-the-Valley in the Garden
Lilies-of-the-valley work well in shaded garden beds, rock gardens, and woodland gardens. The perennial flowers first appear in May and remain in bloom for 2 to 4 weeks.
It’s a perfect groundcover for shady areas with rich, moist soil, but in the right conditions, it will aggressively spread. It may be considered invasive in some areas, so check local regulations before planting.
Plants reach 6 to 12 inches tall with two to three leaves and a flowering stem rising from the center of the leaf clump.
All About Hawthorns
Belonging to the genus Crataegus, hawthorn is a member of the Rosaceae (rose) family, which also includes many food crops such as apples, cherries, and pears. Its genus name is derived from the Greek words kratos, meaning ‘strength,’ because of the great strength of the wood, and akis meaning ‘sharp’, referencing the thorns of most species. ‘Hawthorn’ can be traced back to the Old English word hagathorn, with haga meaning ‘hedge.’
In addition to North America, hawthorns can be found in Europe and Asia. There are hundreds of species of hawthorns, which are small, dense trees or shrubs that can grow up to 30 feet tall.
Hawthorn Meanings and Symbolism
Hawthorns have long been a symbol of hope. Other associations include its ability to mark the entrance to other worlds, with a strong connection to fairies.
Ancient Greeks were said to use its branches during wedding processions, while in Celtic lore, Hawthorns were thought to heal a broken heart.
According to Serbian lore, it was once believed that stakes made from hawthorns could slay vampires.
Hawthorns are associated with the pagan symbol of fertility.
It was once thought that bringing a hawthorn blossom inside would be followed by illness and death. During medieval times, the smell of hawthorn blossom was associated with the Great Plague.
Many have believed that a hawthorn’s bloom marked the point of change from spring to summer.
Hawthorn in History
The hawthorn’s link to May Day is undeniable. It has been customary to decorate for the celebration with flowering Hawthorn branches, most notably in the form of May Day garlands.
In 1923, the white hawthorn blossom was recognized as the state flower of Missouri.
Hawthorn has been used for medicinal purposes for years, including to treat heart and blood diseases, as well as chest pains, blood pressure issues, and high cholesterol. The majority of its medicinal value is found in its fruit pigments.
Hawthorn leaves and fruit are edible. When picked young, the leaves can be used in salads. The fruit can be eaten on its own or used to make jelly and wine.
The shrike—a type of bird—will impale its (already dead) prey onto a hawthorn’s thorn, allowing the bird to eat more comfortably.
Hawthorn in the Garden
Mature hawthorns have bark that is gray and scaly. The twigs are thin, and thorns grow 1 to 3 inches long.
Small white or pink flowers with 5 petals bloom in clusters in late spring. After the flowers come and go, small pome fruit emerges, first as yellow and then red when it matures in the fall. The leaves are simple, usually toothed- or lobed-shape.
Hawthorns can grow in full sun or partial shade, doing best in moist, well-drained soil. For optimum fruit production, full sun is best.
The fruit is an important winter food source for birds, and the thorny hawthorns also provide protective nesting areas safe from predators.