The May flower

Yesterday, the flowers of the season were still yellow — les jaunes d’Avril — but today they are white — les muguets pour le premier Mai — also (on the plus side) delicately pretty and highly scented but (on the minus side) both poisonous and rampant, while conveying beginnings, affectionate respect, and the power of unions marching in the streets. Hey, they’re just colors, and just plants — It’s Just Stuff, as I say every so often —  each capable of symbolizing pretty much anything, in some sociocultural context or another.

(The April section of this posting is not about les gilets jaunes, despite Google search’s inclination to wrestle any jaunes-related query into an investigation of politically significant vests.)

April, very briefly. The sunny flowers of spring, the yellow flowers of April, which burst suddenly onto the scene: the chalices of yellow crocuses —


and the trumpets of yellow daffodils —


From the jaunes d’Avril to the dancer Jane Avril:

(#3) Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1893 poster

From Wikipedia:

Jane Avril (9 June 1868 – 17 January 1943) was a French can-can dancer made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec through his paintings. Extremely thin, ‘given to jerky movements and sudden contortions’, she was nicknamed La Mélinite, after an explosive.

… Using the stage name Jane Avril, [Jeanne Beaudon] built a reputation that eventually allowed her to make a living as a full-time dancer. Hired by the Moulin Rouge nightclub in 1889, within a few years she headlined at the Jardin de Paris, one of the major café-concerts on the Champs-Élysées. To advertise the extravaganza, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted her portrait on a poster that elevated her stature in the entertainment world even further. The popularity of the cancan became such that Jane Avril travelled with a dance troupe to perform in London.

Le 1er Mai. Background on the plant of the day, from Wikipedia:


Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), sometimes written lily-of-the-valley, is a sweetly scented, highly poisonous woodland flowering plant that is native throughout the cool temperate Northern Hemisphere in Asia and Europe. Other names include May bells, Our Lady’s tears, and Mary’s tears. Its French name, muguet, sometimes appears in the names of perfumes imitating the flower’s scent.

… the genus is [currently] placed in the family Asparagaceae … It was formerly placed in its own family Convallariaceae, and, like many lilioid monocots, before that in the lily family Liliaceae.

Convallaria majalis is an herbaceous perennial plant that forms extensive colonies by spreading underground stems called rhizomes.

On the various symbolisms of le muguet, from the site The Connexion: French news and views, on 5/1/14, “France’s other May Day tradition”:

Shops are shut, buses are not running, and unions are marching for workers’ rights, as France marks the Fête du Travail [Labo(u)r Day] today.

(#5) In 1890 the Socialist movement adopted a red triangle to symbolise their objective: 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, 8 hours of leisure. This symbol was later replaced by the wild rose, then in 1907 by a sprig of muguet. (from the magazine L’Assiette au Beurre*)

But, as well as work and workers, May 1 – which became a public holiday in France in 1947 – is associated with an older tradition. It is the Fête du Muguet, when thousands of roadside stalls selling lily of the valley spring up.

(#6) A flower seller in Paris in the 1930s offering muguets — a much-reproduced photo whose source I haven’t been able to trace; see the Laidback Gardener site’s posting, “The Mayflower: the flower behind the name”

The flower only became associated with workers’ rights in the 20th century.

Last year the French forked out €31.8m to buy a sprig of lily of the valley (“muguet”) as a token of affection for family and loved ones.

The tradition of giving lily of the valley flowers on May 1 is said to have begun in 1560, when knight Louis Girard presented King Charles IX with a bunch of lily-of-the-valley flowers as a token of luck and prosperity for the coming year.

(#7) The first of May brings happiness

It is said that he took a shine to the idea and began the custom of presenting lily-of-the-valley flowers to the ladies of his court each year on the same day.

[*footnote, from Wikipedia:

L’Assiette au Beurre (literally The Butter Plate, and roughly translating to the English expression pork barrel) was an illustrated French weekly satirical magazine with anarchist political leanings that was chiefly produced between 1901 and 1912. It was revived as a monthly for a time and ceased production in 1936.

The magazine’s caricature and editorial cartoon content was drawn from a varied cadre of illustrator-contributors of many backgrounds and disparate artistic styles. The content often focused on socialist and anarchist ideas.]

10 Responses to “The May flower”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    I posted about lilies of the valley on Facebook the other day, with a note about singing “White Coral Bells” in grade school. This song appeared rather suddenly in a song book, about a century ago, and no one knows who wrote words or music. I learned it from my beloved third grade teacher in College Park GA, a ‘burb of Atlanta, in 1946.

    White coral bells, upon a slender stalk,
    lilies of the valley deck my garden walk.
    Oh, don’t you wish, that you could hear them ring,
    but that will happen only when the fairies sing.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I was hoping that some gay men’s chorus had added the song to their repertoire (“that will happen only when the fairies sing”), but apparently not.

      I remember the first two lines from childhood — sung as a round — but not the rest.

      • Bob Richmond Says:

        I do remember it’s pretty hard to get boys to sing it, partly for that reason!

        Of course, the secret to getting boys to sing is just sing the Marines’ Hymn time and again. And I hate to say that, being both an Army brat and an Army veteran.

      • Robert Coren Says:

        My recollection from my childhood is that, although I knew the version above, there was also an alternate version with “fairies” replaced by “elves all”, presumably to avoid issues with the slang meaning of “fairy”.

        And yes, I remember it being sung as a round, which is only partially satisfactory because the music for the second couplet is the same as the first.

  2. Margaret Winters Says:

    As a faithful francophile, I have planted muguets des bois in my garden (though in a bed they cannot escape from and take over the whole garden), but Michigan being Michigan, they bloom long after 1 mai.

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    About 15 years ago, I moved some lilies of the valley from a place where I didn’t want them (but where they still persist, although I’ve been mostly able to keep them in check) to somewhere more suitable, where the half-dozen plants I put in have since become several hundred. A couple of years ago a local gardening columnist described it aptly as a plant with “delicate flowers and thuggish behavior”.

  4. Robert Coren Says:

    Also, the Jane Avril poster caught my eye because just yesterday I visited an exhibit of Toulouse-Lautrec works at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that focused to great extent on his posters and prints, including those promoting Avril. (I cannot remember whether #3 itself was among them.) I recommend this exhibit to any readers who find themselves in the Boston area over the next couple of months.

  5. [BLOG] Some Thursday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky considers the various flowers of May […]

  6. Sim Aberson Says:

    We don’t have Lily of the Valley here (too tropical), but we do have Eucharist Lilies. They’re white and face downward like LotV, but are a lot bigger. I’m not sure how the genus got its name, but it may be that they bloom around the time of Easter.

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