Heliotrope is another much loved flower in my garden (it seems that I love them all and would be hard-pressed to choose a single favorite!). It is called Heliotrope because it follows the course of the sun. Mrs. Grieve says that "after opening it gradually turns from east to west and during the night turns again to the east to meet the rising sun". I confess I didn't observe it closely enough last summer to notice this characteristic, but I intend to watch it it much more diligently in the summer to come!
This sweet flower was discovered in the Peruvian Andes by the French botanist Joseph de Juissieu. The story of its discovery and introduction to Europe is told by G. Francis in The Favorites of the Flower Garden (published in 1844): "While botanizing one day in the Cordilleras he [Juissieu] suddenly found himself overpowered by an intoxicating perfume; he looked around, expecting to see some gaudy flower or other from which it proceeded, but could percieve nothing but some handsome bushes of a light green, the extremities of whose sprays were tipped with flowers of a faint blue color. He went up to these bushes, which were about 6 feet high, and saw that the flowers which they bore were all turned towards the sun. Struck with this peculiarity the learned botanist gave to the plant the name of Heliotrope, and collecting some of the seeds he sent them to the Royal Garden at Paris, where the Heliotrope was first cultivated in 1740. It has since spread to all the countries of Europe". Other sources give the year of its introduction to Europe as 1751 or 1757, but the date of its introduction to the US seems to be a mystery. Interestingly, in Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book there is a list of seeds and plants sent by Jefferson to Francis Eppes from Paris about 1786, while he was serving as Minister to France. On this list is "Heliotrope. to be sowed in the spring. a delicious flower, but I suspect it must be planted in boxes & kept in the house in the winter. the smell rewards the care". I certainly am no authority on the matter, but I wonder if perhaps Jefferson should receive the credit for its introduction to this country?
Heliotrope was very popular in the Victorian era and was taken to represent devotion. It was one of Emily Dickenson's favorite flowers, and two heliotropes were put in her hands after her death "to take to Judge Lord".
It is also much beloved in its native land where, according to G. Francis, it "takes the place of the rose among us, as the emblem of all that is sweet and beautiful". And yet, he tells us, even the best of us have our enemies, and "the little Heliotrope, although accepted as a darling by the fair sex throughout the world (and who so well able as they to judge of beauty and merit) has met with its maligner, and been accounted with all its sweetness as but an emblem of self-interest,
There is a flower whose modest eye,
Is turned with looks of light and love,
Who breathes her softest, sweetest sigh,
When ere the sun is bright above.
Let clouds obscure, or darkness veil,
Her fond idolatry is fled!
Her sighs no more their sweets exhale,
The loving eye is cold and dead!
Canst thou not trace a moral here,
False flatterer of the prosperous hour,
Let but an adverse cloud appear,
And thou art faithless as the flower!"
Personally, I do not feel that the poor Heliotrope deserves this disparaging poem. The weather in my garden is far from being ideal for a native of Peru, and yet it grows and blooms the best it can, although it only manages to attain a height of 10 inches or so.
Heliotrope is another member of the Borage family (Boraginaceae). It is also called by the common names Turnsole (which has the same meaning as Heliotrope) and Cherry Pie Plant, because some think that the flowers smell exactly like cherries baked in a pie. Others describe its fragrance as vanilla or almond. Sadly, the scent is almost lost in many modern cultivars. Those with white flowers are often the most fragrant, but I haven't been able to find any seed, so I grow the dark purple Ognodowy, which has a pleasant fragrance, but only if you get close enough!
Historically, the whole plant was used in a tincture for clergyman's sore throat, but it is now considered to be poisonous. Also, the scent was once believed to help fight fatigue, and surely there is no harm in trying that!
Truly, the Heliotrope is another treasure and deserves to find a place in every garden!
I am a passionate gardener and seed-saver, who also enjoys playing the violin and accordion, running, spending time with my 4 golden retrievers, keeping chickens, photography, and reading. I also blog for Heirloom Gardener.