A rhizomatous, perennial herb of free-draining acidic soils in Quercus-Betula woodlands, but also persisting at sites replanted with conifers. Flowering and seed-set is poor. Lowland.
M. bifolium was known in both cultivation and the wild by 1597. Records from the 17th century suggest that it was formerly more abundant and widespread, but extant populations tend to be isolated and very small, although stable. It is native or long-established in N. & E. England, and is usually short-lived at those sites mapped as alien, other than in Norfolk where it has been known since 1955.
Eurasian Boreo-temperate element, with a continental distribution in W. Europe.
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Light (Ellenberg): 3
Moisture (Ellenberg): 5
Reaction (Ellenberg): 3
Nitrogen (Ellenberg): 3
Salt Tolerance (Ellenberg): 0
January Mean Temperature (Celsius): 2.9
July Mean Temperature (Celsius): 15
Annual Precipitation (mm): 753
Height (cm): 20
Perennation - primary
Life Form - primary
Clonality - primary
Count of 10km squares in Great Britain: 4
Count of 10km squares in Ireland: 0
Count of 10km squares in the Channel Isles: 0
Atlas Change Index: 0.32
Plantatt Conservation Status
RDB Species Accounts
Maianthemum bifolium (L.) F.W.Schmidt (Liliaceae)
May lily, Lili Fai
Status in Britain: VULNERABLE.
Status in Europe: Not threatened.
In Britain, M. bifolium is a component of the ground layer of oak-birch woods, growing on well-drained acidic soils, being commonly found with species such as Ceratocapnos claviculata, Dryopteris dilatata, Luzula sylvatica, Pteridium aquilinum and Rubus fruticosus. Its shade-tolerant nature allows the species to maintain populations under Larix kaempferi and Pinus sylvestris following the development of conifer plantations on some of its English sites.
It is a hemicryptophyte, spreading by slender rhizomes. Tens of shoots may represent one individual. Flowering is in May and June with the leaves persisting until autumn. The main energy input is into vegetative reproduction, and the frequency of flowering is very low. For instance, in the Norfolk population only 8% of the shoots bore flowers in 1994. The seed-set is even lower, no seed being recorded from Norfolk in 1993 or 1994 (Scampion 1994), this low figure being typical of the other British populations.
There is also some evidence that M. bifolium was once more widespread than at present. Parkinson (1640) wrote "It groweth in ... many places of the Realme". However, since Victorian times M. bifolium has been considered a rare plant. The evidence supporting the native status of M. bifolium in Britain was reviewed by Jackson (1913). Based on ecological conditions, longevity of records and the distance from other sites with human influence he concluded that M. bifolium is native at three of its current English sites: Cockrah Wood in North Yorkshire, Fulsby Wood in Lincolnshire and Hunstanworth in Co. Durham. Each of these sites currently supports at least one healthy population. Over the last twenty years the Fulsby population has remained relatively static, typically numbering several hundred leaves each year. In the same period of time three populations at Cockrah Wood, covering areas from 1-25 square metres have maintained their size, although there has been both movement and fragmentation of some of the clones. However the original native population documented at the site since 1857 was lost in the 1980s. Other supposedly native populations were known, the most celebrated being on Hampstead Heath, this population being lost prior to the Second World War (Fitter 1945).
Records of the plant at other sites are likely to be introductions, the most notable extant ones being at Allerthorpe Common and Swanton Novers Great Wood (Swann 1971), though Ratcliffe (1977) considers it native in the latter site. The Allerthorpe population, known since 1981, was probably introduced accidentally with conifers, and is on the verge of extinction through grazing by slugs and shading by rank Deschampsia flexuosa. A decline in the population at Swanton Novers has been offset by creating dappled shade (by the selective removal of Ilex aquifolium and other shrubs and trees), thereby allowing sufficient light for the vegetative spread of M. bifolium while still suppressing potentially out-competing ground vegetation. Such management may be appropriate at other sites.
M. bifolium is a continental species growing at the western limit of its range in eastern Britain. Its distribution covers northern Europe through Siberia to the Far East, being one of the commonest plants in the Eurasiatic boreal coniferous woods (Hultén 1962).
Further information on Maianthemum is found in Ietswaart & Schoorl (1985), Kawano, et al. (1986), and Raatikainen (1990).
P. A. Ashton