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Lily of the valley

The once-popular lily of the valley, convallaria, is a delightful and wonderfully fragrant plant - perfect for adorning the Christmas windowsill.

Despite its cluster of delicate-looking bell flowers, the European native convallaria majalis is a toughie and grows wild in several places in Scotland, such as the Clyde Valley and the Linn of Tummel, near Pitlochry. Gardeners have cultivated it for centuries, so there are now many shades of pink and white bell flowers, but 19th-century gardeners also grew the now unavailable red and striking purple-striped flowers.

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Many of the available cultivars have subtly varied shades of pink. One of the more beguiling ones is C majalis var rosea, which boasts unusual mauve-pink flowers, each with flaring, pointed tips.

Although I normally prefer these simple, single-petalled varieties, and don't have much time for doubles such as Flore Pleno, Prolificans is mightily impressive. A first single flower is transformed after a week or so into a small but bold cluster of between three and seven bells. And there's the bonus of longer flowering.

Leaf colour and patterns are equally important. Albostriata is particularly eye-catching with light yellow-to-white lines along the entire length of the leaf. And with golden leaves, the slower-growing aurea stands out from the crowd. A bit more distinctive perhaps is Green Tapestry, with irregular yellow patterns on the leaves. For the widest choice of more unusual cultivars, feast your eyes on the range available from a Dutch enthusiast at convallaria.nl.

Whatever your choice of cultivar, lily of the valley can be used in various parts of the garden, not just in shade. It tolerates more sunny spots, but the distinctive yellow leaf colouring in varieties such as albostriata and lineata turn white when exposed to the full glare of the sun.

Like me, you'll share plantsman David Stuart's enthusiasm for these little gems. "All are lovely plants, especially when planted thickly around some favourite seat: one with sun in early afternoon or evening when the warmth will draw every drop of scent from the flowers," he writes in Plants From The Past (1987). "They will save you doing too much weeding so you might actually have time to sit down and enjoy them." Spreading clumps may effortlessly smother competing weeds. Victorian and Edwardian gardeners often used lily of the valley in the kitchen garden, while Chilton Foliat's head gardener Harry Dodson, an expert in Victorian techniques, planted it beneath an impeccably pruned apple walk off one of the garden's major features, the central path. He also forced the plants in his greenhouse so they could be sent up to the lady of the house.

I don't think we make as good use of convallaria as gardeners did 100 years ago. Writing in 1909, Samuel Arnott expected to have lilies of the valley in flower any time between May and December, depending on how he treated the plants' rhizomes.

Arnott forced lily of the valley for Christmas, in much the same way we do hyacinths today. Like most of his contemporaries, his favourite for forcing were Berlin Crowns.

In Gardening In The North he advises: "To have blooms for Christmas, give them six weeks. Dip the crowns in warm water and keep it warm for some hours; then plant the roots in the plunging material of a propagating pit, covering the crown entirely. Keep constantly moist ... transfer to pots, several [crowns] in each ... they are easy to force in pots and it is always a help to cover the crowns to draw up the spikes and foliage."

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