Hesperis Matronalis is known by many charming common names, including Sweet Rocket, Evening Dame's Rocket, Night-scented Gilliflower, Dame's Gilliflower, Queen's Gilliflower, Rogues' Gilliflower, Damask Violet, Mother-of-the-evening, Vesper-flower, and Summer Lilac. The famous English herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), calls it Scentless Eveweed, but writes that "the gardeners, not very nice or careful about names, call it Striped or Double Rocket".
Hesperis is a Greek word, meaning Evening, and Matronalis is Latin and means "of the mother, or "of the married woman". In "A Modern Herbal", Maud Grieve (1858-1929) says that "In the language of flowers, the Rocket has been taken to represent deceit, since it gives out a lovely perfume in the evening, but in the daytime has none. Hence its name Hesperis, or Vesper-Flower, given it by the Ancients". Its association with deceit is likely also why it was called Eveweed.
Louise Beebe Wilder gives a beautiful description of this flower in her book, "My Garden" (published in 1916): "Hesperis Matronalis has starlike flowers, white, or in shades of pale purple and violet, and gives forth to the night a most delicious fragrance which it quite withholds from the day."
According to Mrs. Grieve, it is a "native of Italy, but found throughout most of Central and Mediterranean Europe, and in Britain and Russian Asia as escapes from gardens".
It arrived in North America in the 17th century, and has naturalized from Newfoundland to Georgia. In some states, it is even considered invasive. It does self-sow prolifically. There is a beautiful garden a few miles from us that is full of Sweet Rocket every May and June, and it also blooms in an old field across the road from that garden. It is such a pretty flower, though, I can't see why anyone would mind! Louise Beebe Wilder writes that "perhaps it is a bit too free a seeder to be admitted to very choice gardens, but treated as bienniels, the old plants, which grow lax and straggling, pulled out and thrown away and only a few of the many seedlings retained, it may be enjoyed with safety".
Hesperis Matronalis is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which makes it a relative of cabbage, broccoli, mustard, cauliflower, kale, radishes, turnips, etc. I found this interesting, because I noticed last year how much the flowers and seedpods resemble those of broccoli and radishes!
The leaves are rich in Vitamin C and have been used to prevent scurvy. However, Mrs. Grieve warns that "a strong dose will cause vomiting". Nicholas Culpeper says that "it is accounted a good wound-herb", and also mentions that "some eat it with bread and butter on account of its taste, which resembles garlick". The seeds have also been mixed with vinegar and uses as a cure for freckles!
I am looking forward to seeing this lovely flower in my garden again next spring. Now I am wondering which of its pretty names to call it by! Which is your favorite?
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.