The Lily of the valley, breathing in the humble grass
Answer’d the lovely maid and said: “I am a watry weed,
And I am very small, and love to dwell in lowly vales;
So weak, the gilded butterfly scarce perches on my head;
Yet I am visited from heaven, and he that smiles on all
Walks in the valley and each morn over me spreads his hand,
Saying: ‘Rejoice, thou humble grass, thou new-born lily flower,
Thou gentle maid of silent valleys and of modest brooks;
For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna,
Till summer’s heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs
To flourish in eternal vales.’ Then why should Thel complain?
Listen if you will:
One legend tells that the first Lily of the Valley loved the Nightingale, but because she was so shy, she hid in the long grass to listen to his song. The Nightingale became lonely, and said he would no longer sing unless the lily of the valley bloomed every May for all too see.
The Latin name Convallaria means “valley” and Majalis means “blooming in May” (from Greek). This woodland plant is native throughout the cool temperate Northern Hemisphere in Asia and Europe. In different countries it’s associated with love, tenderness, innocence, faith… This flower inspires people for poetry, legends, festivals and traditions…
In France there is a Lily of the Valley Festival. In Balkans it’s a pagan and Orthodox holiday. In Old Germany there used to be a huge fair with dancing, bonfires, singing and praising the Goddess of Spring. (By the way, in Germany the flower is called the “Little Bell of May” or Maiglöckchen.) In Russia there is a legend about princess of the Sea Volkhova who fell in love with Sadko. But he gave his heart to Ljubava, the Princess of Forests and Valleys. Volkhova came from the sea to the land and started crying. Her dropped tears appeared with Lilies of the Valley—a symbol of sorrow, love, purity and innocence.
After Lily of the Valley finishes blooming, the red berries appear on the stem. Old legends say that those are not berries but the tears from separation with Young Spring. She is very independent, travels from south to north and gives love to everyone. She might have loved him, but not forever. Spring left him with the Summer. Lily of the Valley got so upset that his leaves turned yellow, and on the stems little scarlet berry-tears appeared.
Lily of the Valley is given meaning as a symbol of purity, simplicity, charm, humility, and also believed to bring good luck in the world of romance and therefore not be surprised if this flower is often found in the arrangement for weddings.
Lily of the valley has been used for medicinal purposes. It was believed to strengthen memory, to restore speech and as a liquor smeared on the forehead and the back of the neck, to make one have good common sense. All parts of the plant are considered poisonous, despite it’s alleged powers.The leaves yield a green dye, with lime water.
Toxicity is the plant’s defense against animals eating its seeds. All parts of the plant—the stems, the leaves, the flowers and the berries—are extremely poisonous and close to 40 different cardiac glycosides have been found in the plant so far.
Glycosides are chemical compounds where a sugar is bound to a non-carbohydrate molecule. By increasing calcium stores in and around cells, cardiac glycosides increase the force with which the heart contracts and the volume of blood it can pump. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and these compounds have been used in medicine since the ancient Roman Empire to treat arrhythmia and congestive heart failure (today, the drugs Lanoxin, Digitek, and Lanoxicaps are made from a purified cardiac glycoside extracted from the foxglove plant). In quantities over the recommended safe dosage, though, cardiac glycosides can wreak havoc on your gastrointestinal, circulatory and nervous systems
Interesting to note:
This flower was the favorite of great Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The Sea King’s Daughter (a Russian legend)
Long ago in the river port city called Novgorod the Great, there lived a young musician named Sadko.
Every day, a rich merchant or noble would send a messenger to Sadko’s door, calling him to play at a feast. Sadko would grab his twelve-string gusli and rush to the banquet hall. There he would pluck the strings of his instrument till all the guests were dancing.
“Eat your fill!” the host would tell him later, pointing him to the table, and passing him a few small coins besides. And on such as he was given did Sadko live.
Often his friends would ask him, “How can you survive on so little?”
“It’s not so bad,” Sadko would reply. “And anyway, how many men can go to a different feast each day, play the music they love, and watch it set a whole room dancing?”
Sadko was proud of his city, the richest and most free in all Russia. He would walk through busy Market Square, lined with merchants in their stalls and teeming with traders from many lands. He never crossed the square without hearing tongues of far-off places, from Italy to Norway to Persia.
Down at the piers, he would see the sailing ships with their cargos of lumber, grain, hides, pottery, spices, and precious metals. And crossing the Great Bridge over the River Volkhov, Sadko would catch the glint from the gilded roofs of a dozen white stone churches.
“Is there another such city as Novgorod in all the world?” he would say. “Is there any better place to be?”
Yet sometimes Sadko was lonely. The maidens who danced gaily to his music at the feasts would often smile at him, and more than one had set his heart on fire. But they were rich and he was poor, and not one of them would think of being his.
One lonely evening, Sadko walked sadly beyond the city walls and down along the broad River Volkhov. He came to his favorite spot on the bank and set his gusli on his lap. Gentle waves brushed the shore, and moonlight shimmered on the water.
“My lovely River Volkhov,” he said with a sigh. “Rich man, poor man—it’s all the same to you. If only you were a woman! I’d marry you and live with you here in the city I love.”
Sadko plucked a sad tune, then a peaceful one, then a merry one. The tinkling notes of his gusli floated over the Volkhov.
All at once the river grew rough, and strong waves began to slap the bank. “Heaven help me!” cried Sadko as a large shape rose from the water. Before him stood a huge man, with a pearl-encrusted crown atop a flowing mane of seaweed.
“Musician,” said the man, “behold the King of the Sea. To this river I have come to visit one of my daughters, the Princess Volkhova. Your sweet music reached us on the river bottom, where it pleased us greatly.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” stammered Sadko.
“Soon I will return to my own palace,” said the King. “I wish you to play there at a feast.”
“Gladly,” said Sadko. “But where is it? And how do I get there?”
“Why, under the sea, of course! I’m sure you’ll find your way. But meanwhile, you need not wait for your reward.”
Something large jumped from the river and flopped at Sadko’s feet. A fish with golden scales! As Sadko watched in amazement, it stiffened and turned to solid gold.
“Your Majesty, you are too generous!”
“Say no more about it!” said the King. “Music is worth far more than gold. If the world were fair, you’d have your fill of riches!” And with a splash, he sank in the river and was gone.
The next morning, Sadko arrived at the market square just as the stalls were opening. He quickly sold the golden fish to an astonished merchant. Then hurrying to the piers, he booked his passage on a ship leaving Novgorod that very day.
Down the Volkhov the ship sailed, across Lake Ladoga and the Gulf of Finland, and into the Baltic Sea. As it sped above the deep water, Sadko peered over the rail.
“In all the wide sea,” he murmured, “how can I ever find the palace?”
Just then, the ship shuddered to a halt. The wind filled the sails, yet the ship stood still, as if a giant hand had grasped it.
Some of the sailors cursed in fear, while others prayed for their lives. “It must be the King of the Sea!” the captain cried. “Perhaps he seeks tribute—or someone among us.”
“Do not be troubled,” called Sadko. “I know the one he seeks.” And clutching his gusli, he climbed the railing.
“Stop him!” shouted the captain.
But before any could lay hold of him, Sadko jumped from the ship and plunged below the waves.
Down sank Sadko, down all the way to the sea floor. The red sun shone dimly through the water above, while before him stood a white stone palace.
Sadko passed through a coral gate. As he reached the huge palace doors, they swung open to reveal a giant hall. The elegant room was filled with guests and royal attendants—herring and sprats, cod and flounder, gobies and sticklebacks, sand eels and sea scorpions, crabs and lobsters, starfish and squid, sea turtles and giant sturgeon.
Standing among the guests were dozens of maidens—river nymphs, the Sea King’s daughters. On a shell throne at the end of the hall sat the Sea King and his Queen.
“You’re just in time!” called the King. “Musician, come sit by me—and let the dance begin!”
Sadko set his gusli on his lap and plucked a merry tune. Soon all the fish swam in graceful figures. The seafloor crawlers cavorted. The river maidens leaped and spun.
“I like that tune!” declared the King. He jumped to the center of the hall and joined the dance. His arms waved, his robe swirled, his hair streamed, his feet stamped.
“Faster!” cried the King. “Play faster!”
Sadko played faster and the King’s dance grew wilder. All the others stopped and watched in awe. Ever more madly did he move, whirling faster, leaping higher, stamping harder.
The Sea Queen whispered urgently, “Musician, end your tune! It seems to you the King merely dances in his hall. But above us, the sea is tossing ships like toys, and giant waves are breaking on the shore!”
Alarmed, Sadko pulled a string until it snapped. “Your Majesty, my gusli is broken.”
“A shame,” said the Sea King, winding to a stop. “I could have danced for days. But a fine fellow you are, Sadko. I think I’ll marry you to one of my daughters and keep you here forever.”
“Your Majesty,” said Sadko carefully, “beneath the sea, your word is law. But this is not my home. I love my city of Novgorod.”
“Say no more about it!” roared the King. “Prepare to choose your bride. Daughters, come forth!”
The river maidens passed in parade before Sadko. Each was more lovely than the one before. But Sadko’s heart was heavy, and he barely looked at them.
“What’s wrong, musician?” the King said merrily. “Too hard to choose? Then I’ll wed you to the one who fancies you. Behold the Princess Volkhova!”
The princess stepped forward. Her green eyes were sparkling, and a soft smile graced her lips. “Dearest Sadko, at last we can be together. For years I have thrilled to the music you’ve played on the shore.”
“Volkhova!” said Sadko in wonder. “You’re as lovely as your river!”
But the Sea Queen leaned over and said softly, “You are a good man, Sadko, so I will tell you the truth. If you but once kiss or embrace her, you can never return to your city again.”
That night, Sadko lay beside his bride on a bed of seaweed. She’s so lovely, thought Sadko, so charming—all I ever hoped for. How can I not hold her?
But time after time, the Queen’s words came back to him—never return to your city again— and his arms lay frozen at his sides.
“Dearest,” said the princess, “why do you not embrace me?”
“It is the custom of my city,” Sadko stammered. “We never kiss or embrace on the first night.”
“Then I fear you never will,” she said sadly, and turned away.
When Sadko awoke the next morning, he felt sunlight on his face. He opened his eyes and saw beside him not the Princess Volkhova but the River Volkhov. And behind him rose the walls of Novgorod!
“My home,” said Sadko, and he wept—perhaps for joy at his return, perhaps for sadness at his loss, perhaps for both.
* * *
The years were good to Sadko. With the money that remained to him, he bought a ship and goods enough to fill it. And so Sadko became a merchant, and in time, the richest man in Novgorod. What’s more, he married a fine young woman and raised a family. Many a feast he would hold so he could play his gusli and watch his children dance.
Yet sometimes still on a quiet evening he would walk out of the city alone, sit on the bank, and send his tinkling music over the water. And sometimes too a lovely head would rise from the river to listen—or perhaps it was only moonlight on the Volkhov.
And leaves of that shy plant,
(Her flowers were shed) the lily of the vale,
That loves the ground, and from the sun withholds
Her pensive beauty; from the breeze her sweets.
Wordsworth—The Excursion. Bk. IX. L. 540.