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In 2003, a study published in the journal Science claimed that human sperm were able to literally smell the distinctive springlike fragrance of the lily of the valley.
I won’t get too into the details here, but the lead researcher, in interviews, went so far as to suggest that applying a substance derived from lilies of the valley “in a salve to the vaginal area could raise the chance of conceiving.”
(The general idea was that sperm could detect the chemical bourgeonal — the main element responsible for the flower’s scent — with actual olfactory receptors. The results could potentially “be used to manipulate fertilization,” the researchers wrote, “with important consequences for contraception and procreation.” As another researcher put it, the discovery could potentially “lead to a new generation of nontoxic contraceptives that would not require women to take hormones.”)
I first heard about the phenomenon while reading a book on fertility, and I liked sharing this weird little fact whenever I had the chance. I also enjoyed trying to imagine how the study had come about. (Had one scientist had an especially strong suspicion? Why?)
The “lily of the valley phenomenon,” as it came to be known, spread relatively quickly, in part because it seemed to be such an about-face for the elegant little flower — only about eight inches tall, with tiny, bell-shaped white blossoms — that until then had been mostly associated with chastity, innocence, and humility. (Also called our lady’s tears, in Christian tradition lilies of the valley are thought to have grown up from where Mary wept at the cross or from where Eve wept when she was banished from Eden.)
“Sperm Science May Be Fertility Clue” said one CBS headline at the time of the Science study. (“Sperm Get Their Kicks from Lily of the Valley” said another.) The study was even out there enough to warrant a mention in the Weekly World News.
I couldn’t find any instances of lilies of the valley being used in vaginal salves, although perfume websites subsequently speculated about bourgeonal-heavy fragrances taking on new importance.
Personally, I’d only ever thought of lilies of the valley as sweet and romantic but nonsexual — more associated with the historically virginal side of love and weddings than with a marriage’s consummation.
I knew that Kate Middleton had carried them in her bouquet, for instance, and I had a nice memory of finding a single bunch of rare pale-pink lilies of the valley with my friend Logan while arranging flowers for another friend’s wedding. (We put them in her bouquet.)
Or, as Laura C. Martin writes in Garden Flower Folklore:
[L]ily of the valley is sometimes considered the “fifth thing” that a bride should carry (right after something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue). The Dutch carry this a bit further and often plant the pips of lily of the valley in the first garden the couple owns. Each time the plants bloom, year after year, the couple is supposed to celebrate the renewal of their love.
The plant is also considered an emblem of springtime, rebirth, and “a return of love and happiness” (embodied in the legend of a lily of the valley falling in love with a nightingale). In France, lily of the valley bouquets are traditionally given as gifts on the first day of May (or in the form of “romantic postcards,” like this one).
In England, lilies of the valley are worn during the town of Helton’s famous Flora Day celebration, held on May 8 to herald the coming of spring and the passing of winter. (“The men, dressed in top hats and tails, escort their colourful and beautifully dressed ladies…through the streets and buildings to the delight of the vast crowds.”) The lily of the valley is also the national flower of Finland. The Finnish word for it, kielo, is also “a traditional girl’s name” and a nickname for “amiable cows.”
For most of recorded history, the lily of the valley has also been considered medicinal. Its restorative powers were once “thought to be so strong that infusions made from it were kept in gold and silver vessels” (from Laura C. Martin again), and 16th-century botanist John Gerard recommended filling a jar with the flowers, closing it, and putting the whole thing inside an anthill. A month later, “ye shall find a liquor in the glasse which being outwardly applied helps the gout very much” (via Margaret Grieve’s popular Modern Herbal).
(Another recipe, via Martin, seems more tempting: A half-pound of the flowers, soaked for a month in wine, will yield a substance that when “smeared on the forehead and the back of the neck” is “thought to make one have good common sense.”)
In World War I, a drug obtained from the plant was used to treat soldiers who’d been exposed to poison gas. (At one point, the flowers were also banned in England on suspicion of being of “enemy origin.”) And as recently as 1931, the lily of the valley, according to Grieve, was “valued as a cardiac tonic and a diuretic” and believed to be “a perfectly safe remedy.” (“No harm has been known to occur from taking it in full and frequent doses.”)
But that reputation faded around the middle of the century, and all parts of the lily of the valley are now considered officially poisonous: It’s “extremely dangerous to have around pets and children,” per one gardening website, especially its “attractive red berries,” which were possibly used as a weapon on Breaking Bad (although I still haven’t seen that show, so I’m leaving this vague).
The flower’s reputation as a fertility enhancer has faded, too, as I discovered after trying to share the story a couple weeks ago—“Did you know that lilies of the valley…something…about sperm?”—and realizing that I had forgotten what the facts were. Googling, I learned that the theory had been debunked several years ago.
In a 2012 paper, “Sperm Cannot Detect Smells: End of ‘Lily of the Valley Phenomenon’ in Sperm Research?,” a different set of researchers determined that while the “lily of the valley phenomenon” did seem to exist, the sperm weren’t actually “smelling” the flower’s bourgeonal scent at all; instead, the scientists claimed, the bourgeonal was being tested at such high concentrations that it was essentially mimicking the female sex hormone progesterone, rendering the effect “a laboratory artifact.”
Which was disappointing, because there had been a satisfying balance to the idea that something so seemingly innocent was also sexually powerful — like a floral Jekyll and Hyde. It was also fun to imagine dusty perfume bottles bursting forth from old medicine cabinets with new relevance. And there was something especially appealing about a ladylike flower having such a carnal secret — I liked imagining the lily of the valley, with its pristine little blossoms, as a kind of sexy Bad Seed of the flower world — superficially gentle/dainty and lovely, but bestial and puppeteering at its core.
For what it’s worth, though, bourgeonal is still the only scent that men are apparently better than women at smelling.
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