Heliotropium arborescens

Heliotrope in the Rose GardenWhen I first started at Blithewold I wasn’t the biggest fan of heliotrope.  It’s been a Rose Garden staple since way before my time, and I developed an almost instant aversion to it.  I found the fragrance to be so rich and sweet that it felt to me like being wrapped in heavy velvet drapery. – I’ve wondered if it was given its other name, “Cherry Pie”, because of having a sticky-gooey sort of scent.  I was also irritated by the plant’s prickly itchiness and didn’t love that sometimes the leaves turned black and fell off in great handfuls for no apparent reason.

Heliotropium arborescensHeliotrope flower budsBut today as I was spraying our aphid prone cuttings with insecticidal soap, I realized that heliotrope has grown on me.  Maybe it’s the Old Lady in me coming out but I found the powdery scent sort of grandmother soft and comforting.  And I tend to like plants that bite back – like roses, eryngium, cardoons – and just like trying to keep roses black-spot free, I’m almost always up for a challenge.

So I did a little reading today and learned something(s) new.  The word heliotrope literally means  “to follow the sun”.  I told Gail that and she went to see if our plants were actually facing the sun.  Nope.  Heliotrope, alas, is no sunflower.  Evidently it’s one of horticulture’s weird misnomers.  Heliotropium arborescens is a Peruvian native and is capable of growing tree or at least shrubbery sized where hardy.  But it is extremely frost sensitive – it’s one of our canary-in-the-coalmine annuals – we know a light frost has hit when the heliotrope melts.  It is poisonous and irritating to the skin – it definitely causes a bumply itchy rash on contact with my forearms.  And it prefers rich well drained soil but hates being over watered.

We are lucky to have kept stock of a really old fashioned, highly scented variety and we propagate it year after year by cuttings taken towards the end of summer.  We usually use it exclusively and fairly intensely in the Rose Garden but we’re thinking of busting it out of that garden this year and planting it in the Display Garden.  I have a feeling that it will prefer being separated from the roses which love to be drenched as often as possible and it will also be a perfect addition to the bed where our (my) lavender/purple color experiment might take shape…

Have you planted heliotrope in your garden?  Do you keep it at nose level in hanging baskets?  Have you had trouble finding the heavily scented varieties?  Have you ever noticed it following the sun?

5 thoughts on “Heliotropium arborescens

  1. I have grown heliotrope for many years. I usually grow the very dark purple variety although I think the lighter ones are a bit more fragrant. I do love the smell, but it is one that you have to be up close to get a whiff, so it doesn’t seem to overwhelm the senses. I typically grow it in mixed borders.

    Sheila, I think the dark purple varieties were bred more for the rich color and the giant clusters of blooms than the scent. The flowers on ours are much less showy – unless you close your eyes. -kris

  2. One of my favourite annuals, Kris. It’s always fun to see what people think it smells like, too. I love it and find it smells like vanilla.

    Jodi, You’re right, it’s totally vanilla. I’m not really sure why it ever reminded me of drapery…. -kris

  3. Can remember this flower from my granny’s garden and have always loved it and the comfy, swoony fragrance it sends out. It happens to fall in the lavender to purple zone that I adore and so I can envision a mass planting of it this spring and am going to do it!!! Imagine the smell of it. Thanks, Kris. And blog-readers, don’t be timid in trying it. It’s wonderful.
    Ginny

    Ginny, It’ll be right at home in your garden, as if it’s always been there. (Hasn’t it been?) – Will you plant it in the front door beds for the scent to waft in the windows? -kris

  4. I got it the first summer here, having never ever seen such a thing, and loved it. Planted it out in a dry-ish bed where it thrived and the scent didn’t overpower. I guess I didn’t realize the annual part though and of course it didn’t come back. Maybe I’ll try it again and do cuttings next fall. Which will be a new experiment for me.

    Lynn, Heliotrope takes pretty easily from cuttings and we take more cuttings of the cuttings right about now-ish. The plants are prone to white fly and aphids inside but a little soap keeps them in check. -kris

  5. I have grown heliotrope but have not found it to be a great performer in the garden. I should probably blame myself and give it another go with a bit more fertilizer and attention. As for the fragrance, I have trouble actually experiencing it and may need a bit more of a mass planting. I find it fleeting.

    Layanee, I wonder if you’ve ended up with one of the varieties that have had the scent bred out – what were the breeders thinking? -kris

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