Plant lily of the valley and herbal iris for a waft of perfume from your herb patch. Words Marilyn Wightman
All herbs have their uses for people, and some are renowned for their wonderful perfume. Let me introduce you to two herbs that have been revered and traditionally used for thousands of years because of their amazing scents.
Like roses, lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) has a pure fragrance enjoyed as it is inhaled. The herb is a lover of woodland and shady places. It grows from a rhizome rather than a bulb, like tulips or daffodils. Rather, there is a fat, solid root structure. Think of liquorice, turmeric or ginger, which also grow from rhizomatous roots.
Lily of the valley can slowly, over time, increase its growth size by this underground root system, spreading out in an area from newly formed shoots. It grows well on the shaded southern wall of a house or fence line where the soil tends to remain moist, away from the sun. The herb is frost-hardy so a great one to consider further south in colder areas. If left to grow in a garden space, over years this can form a solid mass of rhizomes. Consider growing lily of the valley under bushes too as it can form a good, lowmaintenance ground cover. The 20cm-long, oval-shaped leaves will die back over summer and autumn, but in spring they will have new growth. By late spring, the reward will be the stems appearing and between five and 13 pretty, fragrant, bell-shaped flowers forming. These dangle down in a dainty show.
At this time of year, when growth is dormant, a patch of lily of the valley can be divided up. Using a sharp spade, strike through the rhizomes to break off a clump. Break this apart by hand and it will form lots of smaller, new plants to be potted up and given away. It is a good hardy herb that can be shared on the sales table of a club or organisation. Or, if wanting to spread the plant around an area, place larger clumps in dug out holes and pack around with fertilised potting mix or compost to ensure good growth.
Medicinally, documentation from around 2000 years ago onwards shows lily of the valley was used as a cardiac tonic, but us common gardening folk can just harvest the flowers to use. Dried, they are used in potpourri or sewn into a herb sleep pillow. In Victorian times, gardeners would artificially force them on so they flowered early in winter to use for fragrant decoration. These flowers are popular for wedding bouquets too. It is also used in raised gardens designed for sight-impaired visitors.
The floral scent of lily of the valley is used extensively as a commercial perfume base as well as in soap-making. It is a scent that can be shared, too, by the herb gardener. Giving away a posy of lily of the valley with the stems in full flower is a precious gift...
Florentine iris (a variant of Iris germanica) is a herbal iris valued for its perfumed orris root. The violet-scented rhizome, when dried and powdered, has been used in perfumery since ancient Egyptian times. Florentine iris grows well in sunny, dry parts of the garden and is a low-maintenance herb to grow. It likes freedraining soil and, positioned on slopes and terraces, it makes a good ground cover. The thick, rhizomatous roots prefer to be partially exposed. Thick, spiky green leaves grow yearround and, in summer, have typical iris flowers.
Now is the time to be lifting and splitting up orris roots to replant in a new area. Drying and grinding up the rhizomes to make orris root powder is a lengthy process. It can be purchased already ground. The powder is used nowadays mainly as a fixative to add to herbal mixes of either potpourri or sleep pillows.
A sleep pillow is a small sachet of soporific and sweet-smelling herbs that calms and promotes sleep for the weary. Tucked into bed under your usual sleeping pillow, the scents are released and inhaled with any slight movement of your head.
• 1 cup dried hops
• ½ cup dried English lavender
• ¼ cup dried lily of the valley
• ¼ cup dried rose petals
• 1 tsp orris root powder
• a piece of cotton, linen or silk fabric (about 20cm by 30cm)
1. Combine all the dried herbs.
2. Add the orris root powder and gently stir through. (This mix can be placed in an airtight container until needed.)
3. Fold the fabric rectangle in half, sew the two sides and turn it inside out (so the seams are inside) to make an open bag.
4. Turn in the fabric along the open edge by 2cm and iron flat.
5. Fill with the herb mix, then sew across the top edge to seal.
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