One of my long time favourites, these old-fashioned plants have recently seen a comeback in popularity. The little effort you put in maintaining Heliotrope is rewarded with an abundance of flower clusters throughout spring, summer and autumn. The most common hue is a deep, rich purple. But when you look closely at the blooms, they have several shades of purple with tiny whitish centers. There are also some white variations of these blooms, as well as some pale lavenders to go along with the deeper purple shades.
The sweet musky blooms attract a wide range of insects especially bees foraging for nectar and pollen. The fragrance of the flowers is responsible for the plant’s nickname of “cherry pie.” Some will hold, however, that the scent is closer to almonds or vanilla. However delectable those blooms smell, don’t be tempted to eat them, as all parts of the plant are poisonous.
Heliotrope is easy to grow. Plants are generally happy with full sun and moderate moisture but can tolerate a bit of shade. In a shadier spot, it may not bloom quite as much, though. One of the best ways to use heliotrope is in containers; the plants can be moved around so their sweet fragrance can be enjoyed. A heliotrope is also great to plant in groups to maximize their fragrance as it can be fairly subtle at times. They combine well with roses, lavenders and rosemary. In my garden I used them as a foil for Bulbine latifolia, a winning combination of colour and texture.
Care: Deadhead regularly, watch out for Australian mealiebug or white scale. Plants respond well to being pruned back to about half it size. Give a generous application of Atlantic organic fertilizer, water well afterwards.
The plants of this genus are able to reach height of 30 – 90cm. Their leaves tend to be quite broad, dark green, and crinkled. The flowers blossom in clusters – forming a single flower head on top of each stem.
Heliotropes are related to comfrey, forget-me-nots – which all belong to the Boraginaceae family. Heliotrope has a distinctively well-built taproot system with a labyrinth of branching systems. The leaves on this plant are oval or egg shapes and are distinctively grey-green to dark-green on the leaf surface, while maintaining a pale-green color underneath the lead.
In Greek, the name heliotrope means “sun” (helios) and “to turn” (tropein). This is because this specific type of plant tends to turn its leaves toward the sun all day long. At night, the plant will actually readjust its leaves and flowers to point eastward, readying itself for the sunrise. This is another unique characteristic of this type of plant, which is also why people call it, ‘turnsole’ as well.
Discovered in the Peruvian Andes by French doctor and botanist Joseph de Juissieu, who journeyed to South America with a scientific expedition in 1735, the plant achieved almost immediate popularity after being introduced to Europe in 1751.
De Juissieu didn’t make it back to Europe himself until twenty years later. Unfortunately, many of his other finds had been stolen or lost at sea, and the doctor ultimately descended into insanity–perhaps in despair over what he conceived a wasted life.
Despite all his years of botanizing, heliotrope (Heliotropium peruvianum, now known as arborescens) is the only find widely attributed to him. However, an 1889 book called The Pharmacology of the Newer Materia Medica by George S. Davis states that De Juissieu was the first explorer to send Erythroxylon coca–AKA cocaine–to Europe around 1750. If he could know how that turned out, I suspect he would prefer to be remembered as the discoverer of the herbe d’amour (flower of love) instead.