Botanical name: Heliotropium
Family: Boraginaceae (Borage)
Display period: May to September
Victorians loved heliotrope for its intoxicating fragrance, described by David Stuart and James Sutherland in "Plants from the Past" (Viking), as "a mixture of almonds, vanilla, lemons and perhaps some cloves." The flowers are nothing to sneeze at, either, the broad rounded clusters, a blending of lavender-blue or all-white florets that individually resemble those of a lilac.
In Victorian gardens and conservatories, heliotrope reached the height of cultural perfection. Through the years the plant has undergone extensive development. Hybrids now available in tall graceful models for outdoor bedding that also make wonderful standards, or as semi-dwarfs fit for a pot indoors or on the terrace. Especially worthy varieties are Marine and Purple Bonnet. In Europe, heliotrope is used in making perfume.
Unable to resist a gorgeous specimen in a 5-inch pot I stumbled onto at Bittersweet Hill Nurseries in Davidsonville, I brought it home to try in a window. The plant has continued to blossom there, but it also, alas, developed a fungal infection that causes the leaves to turn brown and shrivel. The blight attacks if the soil remains too moist.
Hildreth Morton, owner of Bittersweet Hill, says that when leaves begin to wither, cut the plant back by one-third, move it, if it has grown bigger, to a pot two sizes larger and replenish the soil. The plant will develop a nice root system, which will reduce the frequency of the need for watering. Cuttings without flowers or buds may be rooted. Plants are also propagated by seed or layering.
Heliotrope is technically a perennial. But because it is highly sensitive to frost, it must be grown as an annual in areas where frost occurs.
The name, heliotrope, means in Greek "turning toward the sun." Plants displaying such behavior are generally termed heliotropic. the language of flowers, heliotrope stands for devotion.
BY AMALIE ADLER ASCHER