The question would confuse even Shakespeare. To hyphenate or not to hyphenate?   

No answer is forthcoming when the inquiry refers to the fragrant flower lily-of-the-valley. Or is it lily of the valley? 

My grammatical research was inconclusive: the best advice that I could find on hyphenation of this plant’s name was from the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange. This question and answer site for linguists took no side on the lily of the valley debate but insisted the solution to these types of questions was simply to “choose a style and stick with it.” Consistency, after all, is key; and for ease in typing I will stick with the hyphen-less version. 

Lilies of the valley are just finishing their monthlong bloom. Their distinctively downward, bell-shaped, white, single flowers have had their days in the sun. Known for proliferating through May, lily of the valley is the birth flower for that month. Convallaria majalis, its scientific name, literally means May-flowering valley plant. 

The fame of this plant comes not only from its beauty but also from its strong and memorable scent. Its smell is often the first indication that these ground-covering plants have blossomed. This fact, and fragrance, has not been lost on perfumers throughout history. 

Commercial perfumers, especially in France, employed lily of the valley (called muguet) and tried to bottle its scent. Muguet de Bois was a perfume created in 1936, and since then many other versions have been marketed. En Passant in 2000 and Diorissimo from Christian Dior (whose favorite flower was none other than lily of the valley) are other modern and still-available fragrances based on that notable (or nosable) scent. 

With its aroma and simple beauty, it is no wonder that it is a popular flower for wedding bouquets. The trend was set when this flower became the favorite of royalty. Queen Victoria, Princess Astrid of Sweden, Princess Grace of Monaco and Kate Middleton (now Duchess of Cambridge) all had lily of the valley in their wedding finery. Ironically, legend has it that this flower sprang from Eve’s tears when she was exiled from the Garden of Eden — quite the opposite of wedding imagery. 

This beauty also has a beastly side. It is toxic to both people and animals. Perhaps this is why it is in wedding sprays: in case the husband turns out not to live up to expectations. All parts of the plant are poisonous and can cause gastric distress, coma, and — more concerning — heart arrhythmia.   

On the other hand, this plant also has medicinal benefits ascribed to it. It was used to combat gas poisoning during World War I, and to treat a host of disorders, including epilepsy, heart troubles, and skin burns. And, not surprising, its remarkable scent has been employed as aromatherapy for depression. 

Contemporary writer Margot Berwin, author of Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, captures its complexity: “Lily of the valley is known to slow the disturbed action of a weak and irritable heart, while at the same time increasing its power. As a heart medication, it is sometimes preferable to the digitalis made from the foxglove plant, because it is less toxic and does not accumulate in the blood. Lily of the valley has one of the most sexual scents of all plants and is widely used in perfume. No wonder it causes the heart to beat stronger.”

Shakespeare might well have had lilies of the valley — with its almost irresistible attractions and hidden dangers — in mind when he wrote, “These flowers are like the pleasures of the world.”

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.