Lilies are one of the most underestimated herbs. From the time of man’s earliest recording, the lily was noted as the flower of purest beauty. Special virtues were once thought to be possessed by water distilled from the flowers, known as aqua area or golden water, and it was deemed worthy to be preserved in vessels of gold and silver.

A distilled water of lilies was historically employed as a cosmetic, and oil of lilies was supposed to possess nervine powers. The odorous matter of lilies of the valley, though very powerful, is totally dissipated in drying and entirely lost in distillation, so no essential oil can be obtained from them through this process. However, the petals can communicate their fragrance to almond oil. The only effective method to collect this scent is to take a container of almond oil and fresh lily of the valley flowers and soak the flowers in the oil for two weeks. After that time, strain and squeeze the oil from the flowers, and repeat the process using fresh flowers each time, as many times as it takes to impart the scent to the oil.

Native American uses for the lily

Native Americans found many special uses for lilies. Lilies of particular value to the Rocky Mountain region Indians included the yellow pond lily. The Indians would eat the entire plant. They dried lilies, roasted them like popcorn, or ground them into meal for bread and porridge. They also used the leopard, or tiger lily, which Western Indians and the Eskimos still eat like corn.

One of the best remedies known for healing burns and scalds without leaving a scar is an ointment made from Madonna lily root. Many of the lily bulbs, in ointment form, are excellent to remove the pain and inflammation from burns and scalds leaving no scar. The ointment is also used to remove corns.

Ointments of lily have had the reputation of being excellent as an application for contracted tendons. John Gerard, a sixteenth-century British herbalist and author of one of the most famous of all herbal books, said that “the root of the garden lily stamped with honey gleweth together sinewes that be cut asunder. It bringeth the hairs again upon places which have been burned or scalded, if it be mingled with oil or grease.” [John Gerard, The Herball or Generali Historie of Plantes, London, 1597; fac. ed., London: John Norton.]

Pond lilies

White pond lily root is used for inflamed skin. The European yellow pond lily contains nuphar-tannic acid and the flowers contain a fragrant, volatile oil with tannins, sugar, gum, and chlorophyll. If the flowers are too old, they may produce symptoms of narcotic intoxication.

Country people sometimes steeped the fresh lily blooms in spirits and used the liquid as a lotion for bruises in the same manner as arnica or calendula.

The French call lily of the valley muguet. According to Perfume Album, although the scent is not passed through the distillation process, “The chemist knows almost nothing about the composition of lily of the valley oil,” and “Jasmine and rose oils mixed with ylang ylang and orange blossoms can give a lily of the valley scent.” [Jill Eva Jessee, Perfume Album, Huntington, NY: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Co., Inc., 1951, p. 52.]

The lily was always known as a symbol of majesty, and as a formal flower almost needing other flowers in contrast to make its majestic impression. The lily of the valley is regarded as a “return of happiness.”

“The light of its tremulous bells is seen/ Through their pavilions of tender green,” Shelley writes of the exquisite lily of the valley.

Legend says that the fragrance of the lily of the valley draws the nightingale from hedge and bush and leads him to choose his mate in the recesses of the glade.

Artistic and religious use of the lily or lotus

In Greek mythology, the lotus plant represented distaste for active life and was known to induce luxurious dreaminess. In India, there is a large temple made of concrete built in the shape of the lotus lily that holds hundreds of people. Many Buddhist and Hindu deities are pictured and sculpted sitting on lotus flowers. The goddess of the lotus is Prajna-Paramita, the highest female personification in Buddhism, the most spiritual feminine symbol. “The lotus of the world supports the symbol of the enlightenment that dispels the darkness of the naive ignorance inherent in all beings.” [T.C. Majupuria and D.P. Joshi, Religious and Useful Plants of Nepal and India, Lalitpur Colony, Lashkar, India: M. Gupta, 1989.]

The lotus symbolizes how we should live life: Although it has its roots in the mire, it pushes upward through the water and raises its blossom head above the earth.

The lily has historically been the flower chosen to represent the Easter season, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, perhaps because it blooms at that time of year.

Lilies are mentioned numerous times in the Bible. It is believed that the Madonna lily was around in biblical times. Many believe that the flower’s revered place partly stems from its beauty being constantly painted by medieval artists who always showed it as the symbol of purity, most referring to the Virgin Mary.

It seems to me that if roses represent romantic love, then lilies represent pure unconditional love.