Human Flower Project
Konvalinka - It Took an Army
For the annals of unintended consequences: how the Red Army kept the bloom on Moravia’s May flower.
Convallaria majalis (lily of the valley), known in France as “muguets,” in the Czech Republic as “konvalinka”
Photo: Klaus Neukirch
Klaus and Nicole Neukirch of Quarante, France, emailed these lilies of the valley several weeks ago, observing—as well as digitization permits—the beautiful French custom of sharing and wearing muguets for good luck on May 1. Merci, mes tresors!
Imagine our surprise when a week later, we met this woman selling the tiny white bells and their green-leaf wrappers on the street in Brno, Czech Republic. It was Saturday, May 9, formerly recognized as Czech Liberation Day, but we don’t know as that occasion brought this woman from her home in Vyskov to the city. More likely, it was just that lilies of the valley were in bloom. When we asked a clerk at our hotel if this flower held any special meaning at this time of year, she replied: “It’s just something old people in the country do for money.”
Selling konvalinka in Brno, Czech Republic, May 9, 2009
Photo: Bill Bishop
We tried to get this flower seller’s name but our Czech is minimal and ill-pronounced. She thought we were asking her to name the flower and told us: Konvalinka. Stationed in Brno’s busy city center, in a section of the old town restricted to pedestrians, she offered generous bunches for 30 koruny apiece (about $1.50 USD). Sales were good.
Since that day, we’ve learned that Convallaria majalis (Konvalinka vonna, in Czech) and other plants rare to the rest of eastern Europe grow in this region, the Pálava north of Mikulov. Konvalinka is most plentiful on a plateau here, that naturalists Vladimír Antonín and Jiří Danihelka describe as “Pannonian thermophilous oak forest on loess,” an area hospitable to other rarities—Wood melick (Melica uniflora), Wood bluegrass (Poa nemoralis), and Tor-Grass (Brachypodium pinnatum).
Soviet occupation of the Czech lands wouldn’t seem a method for building colonies of rare wildflowers, but…..
Antonin and Danihelka write:
“The whole forested area of the Milovická pahorkatina Hills used to be coppiced until the 1940s.” (The Pálava is the dark green splotch inside the red circle on the map at left.)
The “State Forest Enterprise” fenced most of the area in the late 1960s, establishing two game preserves “for mouflon, red deer, and fallow deer .” The animals flourished, and of course devoured the forest vegetation of this biologically delicate area. “The game numbers culminated just before the fall of the Communist regime in the late 1980s,” the authors report. But Convallaria majalis and other wild plants survived in this particular area: “it was situated outside the game preserve due to its former utilization by the armed forces.”
We haven’t encountered too many militaristic human-flower projects. And this appears to have been a very inadvertent one.