“Muguet” for the 1st of May: symbolising a very French tradition

28-04-2017
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In France, 1st May is a public holiday to mark Labour Day. It is also known as “la Fete du Muguet” or “Lilly of the Valley Day”, when thousands of bunches of these distinctive flowers are sold around France, and given to loved ones as a symbol of happiness.

Let’s find out more about this very French tradition.

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A tradition showing no signs of abating

Every year on the 1st of May in towns and villages around France, markets, streets and florists are awash with the tiny bell-shaped flowers of lilly of the valley. Usually sold in small bunches of three or four stems, or in small pots to keep for longer, on the 1st of May it is legal for anyone to sell lilly of the valley on the street, without paying taxes or a licence. Uniquely lilly of the valley, on the condition that it is grown wild and sold in reasonable quantity…

But what is the true meaning of this French tradition so rooted in French culture?

Lilly of the valley flowers at the start of spring and symbolises the end of winter. It has long been considered the perfect flower to celebrate the coming of the new season and the return of good weather, and also to signal prosperity for future harvests. Nowadays, presenting someone with a bunch of lilly of the valley is a token of great happiness.

A culture predominantly stemming from Nantes

Market gardeners in Nantes in the Loire account for 80% of total production, while the rest is sourced around Bordeaux. Both regions enjoy a temperate climate well-suited to cultivating this delicate flower, with mild, very wet winter conditions. To pick, sort and pack around 75 million bunches of lilly of the valley, seasonal workers are called upon to assist market gardeners. In Loire-Atlantique, 7,000 students, retirees and occasional workers are employed from mid-April. Small posies selling for around €1.50 are usually negotiated down to three times cheaper at Rungis wholesale market outside Paris, which receives the bell-shaped flowers in bunches or in pots.

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Lilly of the valley 2017

This year the lilly of the valley was harvested a week earlier than usual due to dry weather. As a result, the flowers had to be kept in two enormous cold storage units to ensure they looked their absolute best at the time of purchase.  And in fact, despite the tricky timing, the 2017 harvest is looking extremely good, “excellent with long stems, very white bell-shaped flowers and sweet perfume”, according to the Nantes Federation of Market Gardeners*. While sales of lilly of the valley are a significant source of income for Nantes market gardeners, florists and garden chains also rely on their bounty. “Lilly of the valley remains an important tradition and a key commercial opportunity for us”, confirmed Beatrice Jouy, Manager of Jardiland, a garden specialist in Chateaubriant (44).

We only receive the flowers a few days before the 1st of May and they literally fly out the door no sooner than they arrive. This year the flowers are in full bloom”, she explained enthusiastically.

A lucrative, annual one-hit wonder

Sales of lilly of the valley were worth 23.6 million euros in 2015 (2016 figures not yet available), according to data from TNS Sofres for Val’hor and FranceAgriMer. Predominantly bought as a gift (92%), while 8% of customers purchase it for themselves, on the 1st of May 2015, lilly of the valley accounted for 95% of volume sales of cut flowers. According to the study, supermarkets dominate sales (31% market share in value), followed by florists (29%).

*la Fédération des Maraîchers Nantais

Did you know?

  • If you offer a sprig of lilly of the valley with 13 bell-shaped flowers, you are wishing everlasting love to the receiver
  • In France, lilly of the valley symbolises 13 years of marriage.