"Tulips lack scent, roses have thorns,
How shall I even begin to tell about this flower? I already knew something of its history and legends, but once I started to dig a little deeper, I felt like I had opened a treasure chest! This little flower has truly captured the hearts of both gardeners and poets. I hope you may experience half the pleasure in reading this little history as I have in putting it together!
C. L. Allen writes that it is "greatly desired in every garden, not because of the beauty of its flowers, but because of the beauty of the plant, its fragrance, and poetical association". It was this "fragrance and poetical association" that first attracted me to Mignonette. I had come across some mention of it in a garden book and thought that a plant whose name meant "Little Darling" had to be something special! I remember being somewhat disappointed the first time I saw a picture of it. But I am irresistibly drawn to any plant with an interesting history, and so I finally welcomed the Mignonette to my garden last year. It has since won my heart completely! As Dr. Lindley says: "This simple, unattractive weed, which is the envy of the gay and glittering throng that surrounds it in a garden, and which has no rivalry to dread, except from the Rose and Violet, is one of the first flowers that we learn to gather, and the very last that we cease to value".
The Mignonette, or Reseda odorata, was first introduced to the south of France, "where it was welcomed by the name of Mignonette, Little-darling, which was found too appropriate for this sweet flower to be exchanged for any other". According to Henry Phillips' Flora Historica (1824), the seed for Mignonette was first sent by Lord Bateman from the Royal Garden in Paris, to Mr. Richard Bateman of Old Windsor, in 1742. But it seems that it wasn't dispersed beyond Mr. Bateman's garden, and the year of its introduction is given as 1752, when Phillip Miller received seed from Dr. Adrian van Royen, and cultivated it at the Botanic Garden at Chelsea. It quickly became very popular in London, where it was grown in pots on the balconies, "giving something like a breath of fresh garden air to the 'close-pent man'". Cowper mentions this in his famous poem, The Task:
"The sashes fronted with a range,
Of orange, myrtle, or the fragrant weed,
The Frenchman's darling."
It was also sometimes grown indoors, although Phillips tells us that "the odour which this little flower exhales is thought by some, whose olfactories are delicate, to be too powerful for the house". By Phillips' time, it had naturalized in many places, conveying "its delightful odour from the parterre of the prince to the most humble garden of the cottager". Joseph Breck writes in 1851 that he had heard from "a creditable London seedsman" that "he alone sold a ton and a half of the seed yearly"!
This "fragrant weed" is thought to be a native of Egypt and other parts of northern Africa. There is a legend that it was named by Napoleon's soldiers, who saw it during their Egyptian campaign. When they inhaled its delicious fragrance, they were delighted and cried in ecstasy, "Mignonette!" (little darling!). But, although it's a nice story, it is almost certainly not true. Napoleon did indeed collect some seed for Empress Josephine's garden at Malmaison, however.
So who did give Mignonette its name? It is a mystery that has captured the imaginations of many, as in this poem by Susan Coolidge:
"Who gave you your name, Little Darling?
I wish that I knew.
Such a tiny, sweet, lovable blossom;
I half think that you grew
In the Garden of old, and believe
You were christened by Eve.
Was she first of all women to find you?
Did she gather and smell,
And carry a cluster to Adam?
If we could only tell
What they said and they did, he and she,
How nice it would be!
Or was it some quaint maiden
Of France in old days,
Who spied you and loved you and called you
(Oh, sweetest of praise!)
Caressingly, as to a pet,
By the name of Mignon-ette?"
So whether in France or in Eden,
'Tis all one to me,
Yours is just the best name, Little Darling,
Could possibly be.
And though no one had taught me, I yet,
A "quaint little maiden" did give it its name in this French fairy tale...
A young girl was bewailing her homely appearance because she was afraid that no one would love her. She often shut herself up in her room and wept. One day, a fairy in the form of an old woman appeared and asked her why she was crying. The girl told her that she longed to be beautiful so that everyone would love her, and the fairy replied, "If you will do just as I tell you for one year, your wish will be granted. Go out into the world, and never let an hour pass without doing something to make some one happier, and do not look into a mirror until I come again". The old woman then disappeared, and where she had stood there was a tiny plant growing in a flower pot. The child exclaimed, "Oh! the little darling!" and tended it carefully. She did as the fairy told her, and became so interested in helping people that she did not even think to look in the mirror. A year passed quickly, and one day, while she was caring for her plant (which had grown and thrived in her little window garden) the fairy returned and held up a mirror saying, "Look". The girl was amazed when she saw her reflection. Her eyes, once dim with crying, were bright and clear, her cheeks were rosy, and the whole expression of her face was changed. Then the fairy said to her, "You have filled your heart with such beautiful thoughts, and your life with such beautiful deeds that a beautiful soul shines in your face. your wish is granted, and like the flower I left, you will create a sweet atmosphere about you wherever you go".
Mignonette was also called Herbe d'Amour, or Love Flower, but it was used more often for planting on graves than in weddings...
"The delicate odour of Mignonette,
The remains of a dead and gone bouquet,
Is all that tells of a story; yet
Could we think of it in a sweeter way?"
Reseda is derived from the Latin word "resedare", meaning "to assuage", because some species were esteemed good for relieving pains. The fragrance was even believed to ward off certain diseases carried through the air, and among country folk, it was once thought to have magical powers.
In the language of flowers, Mignonette says, "Your qualities surpass your charms". And there is a story behind this motto, which I will do my best to relate:
The Count of Walsthim was betrothed to Amelia of Nordbourg; a beautiful heiress, but unfortunately also very frivolous and coquettish. Amelia had a cousin named Charlotte who, being the only child of her widowed mother, had been brought up with her as a companion. Charlotte had a beautiful heart, but being rather plain in appearance and having no dowry, she did not receive much attention from the wealthy young people among whom her cousin was the center.
One evening at a party, they devised a game in which the ladies were to choose a flower, for which the gentlemen were to compose an appropriate verse. Amelia, who had been arousing her lover's jealousy all evening by flirting with a colonel who was better known in the ballroom than on the battlefield, picked a rose. The rest also gathered the showiest flowers, such as a lily or a carnation. When they were nearly done, Charlotte returned from a charitable visit and was invited to join in their game. She modestly chose a little sprig of mignonette and presented it to the Count, at the same time asking him what verse he had written for Amelia's rose. He then gave Amelia this line: "Elle nevit qu'un jour, et ne plait qu'un moment", which in English means, "She lives but for a day, and pleases but for a moment". Then he handed a verse to Charlotte which read, "Ses qualites surpassent ses charmes" (Its qualities surpass its charms). Amelia, of course, was offended, but the Count transferred his affections to Charlotte. After they were married, he added a sprig of Mignonette to his family arms with the motto: "Your qualities surpass your charms".
As with many of our old flowers, modern plant breeding has, more often than not, actually lessened its qualities. Attempts were made to develop plants with larger flowers, but as Harriet Keeler wrote in 1910, "Enlarging the spikes has not always improved its odour; in some cases this has been transformed into something unpleasant, in others totally destroyed, in others strengthened." Now it is difficult to find a fragrant Mignonette, which I suppose is at least partly to blame for its decrease in popularity. I grow "Machet", and older variety which was introduced around 1889. Although definitely not what I would call overpowering, it does have a light fragrance which is quite unlike that of any other flower I know. The best word I can think of to describe it it "clean"!
I do hope that this humble flower will find its way back into our gardens soon!
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.