The Poisonous Path: Lily of the Valley

The Poisonous Path: Lily of the Valley

Pake Nielson

To an herbalist and medacist alike, the word poison means one thing and one thing only: The amount of something. And this is what it always boils down to when it comes to poisonous substances. How much is safe to take, how much to add to a concoction, and how often until it becomes a problem? All toxins have their uses, and more often than not, their extreme reaction within our bodies gives rise to new treatments and new, more effective medicine. 

This is what makes the poisonous path worth taking for an herbalist. Learning the deadly temperaments of extremely powerful plants has greatly benefited modern medicine, and will continue to do so. It's important to look within dark places for answers and truths unseen - such is the nature of the unknown. After all, it's out of the darkness that light can shine. 

Though it should not be misunderstood, herbs of potent properties can harm and kill you with little to no effort. However, these same plants of poisonous properties can heal and relieve conditions where other herbs fall short. This is what gives them their value. Not to mention the ceremonial and spiritual uses acclaimed to these powerful herbs. In this blog, we will be discovering the lively and dangerous personalities of each plant along the poisonous path. 

Convallaria majalis 

Lily of the Valley, or Convallaria majalis, is believed to have originated in Japan and spread across all parts of the northern hemisphere. This includes most of Asia and parts of Europe, and they tend to grow well in North America as well. Its spread was not natural, of course, and is due to its popularity in fragrance and home gardening. Lily of the Valley is known for its sweet springtime scent and its perennial flowering, blooming in stocks of small white bell-shaped couplets. The scent is what we suspect caught the favor of colonial gardeners, as anyone passing a batch of these lilies will take notice instantly.

However, as alluring as this flower is, Lily of the Valley can cause harm to anyone who ingests this otherwise innocent-looking flower. While all parts of this plant are considered poisonous, the most potent part is its red berries which begin fruiting in late spring to mid-summer. Convallaria majalis is made toxic due to over 40 glycoside constituents found within. Glycosides are sugar-based compounds that increase the calcium stores in nearby surrounding cells. As an effect, glycosides increase the force in which the heart contracts and the amount of blood it can pump by volume. And while this sounds great, when there is too much, it can cause any of the following afflictions: vomiting, reduced heart rate, blurred vision, abdominal pain, seizures, heart arrhythmias, and death, of course. Especially among those with pre-existing heart conditions. Like all other poisons, it comes back to the amount one takes. 

Despite its rather impressive collection of deadly glycosides, Lily of the Valley has its uses. More so in traditional herbalism and modern biomedicine, and not so much in common herbalism. Its most common uses are with conditions surrounding the cardiovascular system. And in lower doses, it can even be considered a cardiac tonic herb. Most notably, it has been used to treat arrhythmias, hypertension, and valvular heart disease. However, it should be said that if you are planning to use Convallaria majalis, it is important to consult a qualified cardiovascular physician. Starting an herbal treatment plan without an adequate evaluation from a qualified cardio specialist could potentially worsen your condition, and in the case of Lily of the Valley, you could end up hospitalized or worse, dead. This is the nature and temperament of working with herbs, plants are equally responsible for our greatest antidotes and our greatest poisons. 

There is no official dosage set in place for Lily of the Valley at this time, and you can find references referring to infusions at the strength of ½ of an ounce of Lily of the Valley to every pint of boiling water. However, more recent accounts take even more caution at the strengths of 1 tsp Lily of the Valley to every 8 ounces of boiling water. This is why it is so apparent to seek a professional and skilled naturopathic physician before taking Lily of the Valley. For some conditions,  glycosides can greatly benefit the individual, for others it will likely worsen the condition.

The most notable, potent, and concerning constituents found present in Lily of the Valley are chief glycosides: convallamarin and convallarin. These two compounds, along with one’s unique medical history and cardiovascular condition, will likely decide whether or not Convallaria is a good choice for them. However, Lily of the Valley is most often reserved for those with valvular heart disease, otherwise one would not make a good candidate for such an alternative treatment. The matchmaking process for this herb is steep and the vetting process is deadly. So perhaps it is best we leave this one in the garden until more is discovered about Lily of the Valley. 

After all, it would seem that Lily of the Valley already has a lover. Among many other names such as Maybells, Muguet des Bois, and May Lilies, this cutie can also be found under the alias Solomon's Seals' Wife. That's right, this lily has already found its perfect match. Lily of the Valley can be found most commonly growing alongside none other than one of the most favorable medicinal herbs of all time, Solomon’s Seal. Truly a dynamic couple, with a romance deeply rooted, physically that is, because one can often find the roots of each plant intertwined and tangled with one another. This can make separating the two difficult, and an error in the harvesting process could be fatal. Their relationship seems to be mutually beneficial, as both plants tend to grow stronger and faster at each other's side. Hence why Lily of the Valley can be referred to as Solomon's Seals' Wife. 

So, the next time you walk by this May-time Lily, you might think of the fragrance, its marriage, or its deadly multi-glycosidal personality, whichever this little innocent-looking, white bell-shaped flower brings to mind. Thank you for joining us on the poisonous path this spring, and be aware of any sweet-smelling Lily of the Valley drawing you in for a heart stopping surprise.
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