The genus name Maianthemum comes from the Greek words maios/May and anthemon/blossom and refers to the month this species flowers. True to its genus name, Leonard and I found these false lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum) blooming in May along California Highway 101 near Trinidad State Beach (Humboldt County).
False lily of the valley is a native perennial growing from California to Alaska and into Japan and Korea. It prefers moist to wet, mostly shaded woods and conifer forests and riverside areas from sea level to 1,600 feet.
The plant arises from slender, branched, creeping rhizomes. There are 1 to 3 broad, heart-shaped leaves. (The species designation, dilatatum, means “broad” in Latin and refers to the leaves.) False lily of the valley leaves are entire, smooth and have a long petiole (stalk).
The inflorescence is a terminal cylindrical cluster (raceme) consisting of 10 to 50 small, white, delicately perfumed flowers composed of four tepals (structures not clearly either a sepal or petal), four stamens with tiny, pale yellow anthers and a superior ovary .
The fruits are small, round berries each containing 1 to 4 seeds. The young fruits are light green mottled with brown maturing to solid red. Northwest Coast groups ate false lily of the valley fruits but they were not highly regarded as a food.
Native Americans had many medicinal uses for false lily of the valley preparations including healing internal injuries, sore eyes, cuts and cataracts. It was also purported to reverse sterility and treat tuberculosis.
Because false lily of the valley spreads vigorously and thrives in shade, it is currently widely planted as a shade-loving, ornamental ground cover.
False lily of the valley was once considered a member of the lily family and even the asparagus family. Now it is a member of the Butcher’s Broom Family (Ruscaceae). False lily of the valley is also commonly called deerberry and Pacific mayflower, among other names.